You should probably never make grand pronouncements after one tiny preseason game, but there’s no arguing that Isaiah Irving, Kylie Fitts, Bilal Nichols, and several of the Chicago Bears’ young defenders stood out against Baltimore Ravens in last Thursday’s preseason opener.
Chicago’s defense came away with eight sacks, eight tackles for loss, and eight quarterback hits, and the team’s youngest players were at the center of the action.
Isaiah Irving, for example, began to make his case for an increased role as an edge rusher in this defense with a sack, tackle-for-loss, quarterback hit, and three solo tackles – all in the first half. But this wasn’t the first time he’s impressed in this capacity. If you recall, the Bears signed Irving as an undrafted free agent out of San Jose State in 2017, but he didn’t really get the feel for things until the third or fourth preseason game last season.
Last year, Irving’s growth (and a wave of injuries to the Bears’ outside linebacker corps) took him from practice-squad player to the rotation before a stint on injured reserve prematurely ended his season. Now, Irving enters 2018 healthy, with a better grasp of Vic Fangio’s system, and a clear path to playing time … if he can take advantage of it.
Meanwhile, the Bears hope to have a steal in Kylie Fitts, a fifth-round pick out of Utah, who was a top-100 prep prospect when he was a California high schooler and UCLA commit. Injuries derailed Fitts collegiate career (and college coaching probably didn’t help), but it didn’t keep Chicago from taking a flier on a young pass-rusher.
In any case, Fitts finished with four tackles (three solo), a sack, a tackle-for-loss, and a quarterback hit in the game – flashing speed, power, and athleticism throughout the day. Of course, there were times where rookie inconsistencies showed up too – particularly when fellow rookie Orlando Brown was able to use his size, length, and strength to neutralize Fitts’ speed. But still, Fitts is in the mix to get some meaningful pass-rushing snaps this season – he’ll just need to stay healthy and come up with some counter moves if he is going to become a mainstay in the group.
Even though Akiem Hicks, Jonathan Bullard, Roy Robertson-Harris, and Eddie Goldman have solidified their spots along the Bears’ defensive line, this is a group that could always use some quality depth. And it’s quite possible that Bilal Nichols, a fifth-round pick from Delaware, could be just that for this unit.
Nichols showed an ability to get into the backfield quickly (against the run and the pass) and was steadily winning at the point of attack. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound defensive lineman came away with four tackles (three solo), a sack, a tackle-for-loss, and a quarterback hit in his professional debut. Alright, so Nichols’ performance didn’t come against the Ravens’ first-teamers. But it’s a showing like that which helps justify the team taking a fifth-round roll of the dice on a player who didn’t play at the highest level of college football.
Cris Collinsworth continued to drive home an inescapable point during Thursday night’s Pro Football Hall of Fame Game broadcast when he made note that the Bears’ pass rush (or lack of it) could be the undoing of something special.
No argument here. The Bears’ pass rush has been a concern since last season when several key members went down with season-ending injuries. And truth be told, this re-worked group leaves something to be desired, especially as we get things started in the preseason.
It will take a team effort and more strong performances from the Bears’ young standouts if pass-rush is going to turn from a question-mark to something resembling a strength. The only people who can do that, however, must come from those already on the Bears roster (OK, and maybe Khalil Mack were he to become available).