Column: How does this Chicago Bears run defense match up with dominant teams of the past? The numbers don’t lie.

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There is a link between the 2023 Chicago Bears and past teams, including the division champions in 2018 and 2001 and even the Super Bowl XX champions of 1985.

The run defense this season is every bit as good as it was for the dominant defenses of those successful teams. In fact, with two games remaining, Matt Eberflus’ team has a shot at being the best run defense in Bears history, a remarkable possibility when considering last year’s team ranked 31st in the NFL allowing 157.3 yards per game, the organization’s second-worst season in the Super Bowl era (161.4 yards per game in 2013).

It’s the same scheme — a base Tampa Two defense that, historically can have a weakness against the run — with mostly the same coaches and many of the same players. General manager Ryan Poles wasn’t oblivious to the problem a year ago when five opponents rushed for 200 or more yards against the Bears.

He responded by bucking up at the linebacker position and signing Tremaine Edmunds ($72 million, four years) and T.J. Edwards ($19.5 million, three years) and adding nose tackle Andrew Billings to a $2.75 million, one-year contract.

The improvements have been striking. Entering Week 17, the Bears (6-9) are No. 1 in the NFL against the run, allowing 80.7 yards per game, nearly 77 yards better than last year’s defense. With games against the Atlanta Falcons (eighth in the league in rushing offense) and Green Bay Packers remaining, Eberflus’ team is in a position to rank with the best in club history.

2018: 80.0 yards per game
2023: 80.7 yards per game
2001: 82.1 yards per game
1985: 82.4 yards per game

“Wow,” Edmunds said when presented with the statistics. “I didn’t know that. It would mean a lot.”

Finding help at linebacker was an obvious goal for Poles after trading Roquan Smith last year. Adding Billings on a bargain deal proved shrewd and the former 3-4 nose tackle, slimmed down a little to 311 pounds for the scheme, already earned an $8 million, two-year extension.

“They expected me to come in here and make an impact, to be that rock in the middle of the defense,” Billings said. “They wanted to improve the run D and they stressed that to me.”

The run defense got even better with the Oct. 31 trade for end Montez Sweat, who has made an impact with six sacks and 13 quarterback hits in seven games. Sweat has been as advertised since arriving, as former Washington Commanders pro scout Donnie Warren said he was a tremendous two-way player — meaning he’s just as good defending the run as he is harassing quarterbacks.

It’s eye-opening that the defense could be catapulted from near the bottom of the league to the top with four new players who have a combined total of two Pro Bowl selections — both by Edmunds.

“It’s a want-to,” tackle Justin Jones said. “There is no secret recipe to it. You’ve got to want to beat the man in front of you. That’s kind of how I see it. We had a bunch of guys that take pride in that and then obviously bringing (Sweat) in, having him settling into our foundational stuff we do, obviously stop the run first, and then get the quarterback, it’s fun to see.”

The Bears have started reaping the benefits that come with stopping the run on first and second down and putting opposing offenses behind the chains. They rank second in the NFL with 18 interceptions — only the San Francisco 49ers (19) have more. They’ve allowed 558 yards rushing on first-and-10, the second-lowest total in the league. They’ve become a good pass-rushing unit since Sweat arrived, with 17 sacks and 49 QB hits in seven games.

“There are a lot of things, and I hate to get on the negative side, that we’re still trying to improve on,” Edmunds said. “I’m not going to neglect the fact that would mean a lot to us (to set a franchise record). It shows the hard work guys have put in. We’re not satisfied where we are and I think the main message now is to continue to get better. ”

There are some basic metrics the Bears want to improve. They’re tied for 21st in scoring, allowing 21.0 points per game. The Bears are 12th in yardage (318.1), 29th on third down (43.8%), 32nd in the red zone (72.5%) and with the midseason start in getting after quarterbacks they’re 31st in sack rate (4.89%).

At Halas Hall, the team has to believe that with some offseason moves and Sweat in place for the start of 2024, they will be better across the board. The Bears are tied for fourth in the league in explosive plays allowed, defined as 20 yards for a passing play and 10 for rushing plays, and that’s significant.

Any more, defensive coaches are more concerned with eliminating big plays than they are with stopping the run. The Bears have excelled in both areas and the success against the run, assuming it can be carried into next season, suggests other improvements will follow.

“First things first, to be a good defense you’ve got to stop the run,” said Edwards, who is seventh in the league with 141 tackles. “That’s really our goal and was a heavy point of emphasis coming into this year. It’s not always been perfect or anything like that. We’re not worried about the stats right now. We just want to play good team defense. That starts up front and that starts with how you defend the run and try to make opponents as one-dimensional as you can.”

The ability to get an opponent behind the sticks is going to lead to more pass-rushing situations and with that, in theory, should come more opportunities for takeaways. The ability to stop the run without loading the box is also paramount because that can leave passing windows open on the back end.

“Facts,” Jones said.

Yes, the dominant run defenses the Bears have had in the past were all part of very successful teams in the franchise’s rich history. The current group has to look at this development as a steppingstone.

“It’s cool,” Jones said. “You want to win more with it.”


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