Despite having a rookie starting at cornerback and safety, the Bears’ pass defense has been one of the bright spots for Matt Eberflus’ bunch this season.
Third-year cornerback Jaylon Johnson has established himself as a defender that no one wants to target. And in doing so, has set himself up for a massive payday from the Bears as soon as this offseason.
Johnson’s success has made things difficult for rookie Kyler Gordon with teams picking on him this season, something he struggled with mightily early. To Gordon’s credit, he’s looked much better in recent weeks. Kindle Vildor has been solid this season, another pleasant surprise for the Bears.
Behind the three primary cornerbacks for the Bears is the safety tandem of Eddie Jackson and Jaquan Brisker. The duo has accounted for five of the Bears’ nine interceptions this season, with four coming via Jackson and one from the rookie Brisker.
Through the first eight weeks of the season here’s how PFF has the Bears secondary grading out individually:
- Jaylon Johnson: 70.4 DEF (34th/110 CB), 68.2 COV (38th/111 CB)
- Kyler Gordon: 50.6 DEF (88th/110 CB), 46.2 COV (97th/111 CB)
- Kindle Vildor: 70.7 DEF (31st/110 CB), 68.5 COV (37th/111 CB)
- Eddie Jackson: 75.8 DEF (16th/87 S), COV (19th/89 S)
- Jaquan Brisker: 70.5 DEF (25th/87 S), COV (73.3/21st/89 S)
So much of the stats explain why this group is a pleasant surprise. As a defense, the Bears have allowed 1,504 passing yards (7th), seven passing touchdowns (T-3rd), and they’ve logged nine interceptions (T-3rd) in their first eight games of the season. And much of the credit can go to a surprisingly solid defensive backfield.
But for as good as the Bears secondary has been, they’re in for their toughest challenge of the season this Sunday when the Miami Dolphins come to town.
Jaylen Waddle already has 42 catches, 727 yards, and five touchdowns in his sophomore campaign. Waddle is on pace for 89 catches and 1,545 yards this season. Meanwhile, teammate Tyreek Hill has caught 69 passes for 961 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Hill is on pace to catch 147 passes for 2,042 yards. It’s truly outstanding production.
Miami has a two-headed monster that will have plenty of opportunities, especially with Head Coach Mike McDaniel — who PFF notes is dialing up passing calls 65.7 percent of the time. The Dolphins are arguably the most heavily schemed passing offense in the NFL, and the Bears’ secondary will be tested.
The fan in me says that the Bears’ secondary will be able to contain (not stop, big difference) the Dolphins dynamic passing attack. The writer in me expects the Dolphins to blow this secondary up, especially if the Bears have trouble tackling.
And I think that might be the most crucial factor for the Bears’ secondary: tackling.
The Bears’ defense ranks 16th in the NFL in tackles per game. And much of that can be attributed to the now-departed Roquan Smith. Roquan led the NFL in tackles before the trade. He figures to be atop the leaderboard when his year ends in Baltimore. But I digress. Tackling has been better this season under Eberflus than it was under Matt Nagy. However, they still get caught selling out for the takeaway attempt sometimes. It can lead to chunk plays that could have been stopped if the defender prioritized the stop over the takeaway.
That’s how Eberflus coaches them up, though. He said as much when discussing Roquan’s status in terms of creating takeaways, and prioritizing what he calls ball production over tackles on the stat sheet. But that won’t work against the Dolphins this week. Eberflus and Defensive Coordinator Alan Williams must stress the importance of tackling above all else in practice this week. Particularly when it comes to defending the pass.
Miami’s passing game relies on their play-making receivers getting the ball and making moves after the catch. Tua Tagovailoa is a quarterback who thrives in the 10–20-yard range, which means Bears defenders need to be aware of the space they give Hill and Waddle.
Hill has long been one of the NFL’s most dangerous playmakers with the ball. It’s his bread and butter, earning him a four-year, $120 million deal in Miami this offseason. Waddle is among the NFL’s leaders in yards after the catch per reception, averaging 7.1 yards after the catch this season. His production in this area has helped Waddle up his yards per reception from 9.8 in his rookie season to 17.3 this season:
Arm strength concerns aside, Tua has been lethal as a passer this season. And he can thank the Hill-Waddle tandem for helping him do damage. But someone has to get the ball to those guys. To that end, Tagovailoa leads the NFL in all sorts of notable passing stats. Among them, he ranks first in yards/attempt (9.0), adjusted yards gained/attempt (9.6), net yards gained per pass attempt (8.31), adjusted net yards per pass attempt (8.85), traditional passer rating (112.7) and ESPN’s QBR metric (78.7). Numbers like these have us thinking of Tua as providing an example to dream on for Justin Fields’ future. At this point of the season, Tagovailoa is putting up the type of Year 2 to Year 3 jump we’d like to see Fields take next year. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
In the end, as impressive as the Bears’ young secondary has been this season, they’re in for a long day at this office this Sunday. If they can tackle above their standard output, they might be able to contain the Dolphins’ dangerous passing attack. If not … it’s going to get ugly.