Any outdoorsman will tell you: A baby bear in the wild may be cute, but get out of there ASAP. If you’re between mama bear and baby bear, you’re in big trouble.
The baby Chicago Bears already look dangerous precisely because the older Bears — the ones general manager Ryan Pace brought to the team — have changed the trajectory of this defense.
Leonard Floyd hasn’t built on his opponent-wrecking rookie season the way many thought he would, but he hasn’t had to… because Akiem Hicks turned into a Marvel character this season. His signing in 2016 inexorably changed this defense for the better.
Hicks might be the best interior defender not named Aaron Donald this season.
He makes 2015 second-round pick Eddie Goldman better next to him, who in turn gives 2016 third-round pick Jonathan Bullard a chance to thrive in sub-package situations.
Pernell McPhee, signed in 2015, is back, healthy, and has already matched his sack total from last season. His success also takes the pressure off Floyd to be an every-down terror.
After being one of the worst teams in football defending the middle of the field through the early 2010s, the Bears signed Danny Trevathan from Denver and drafted Nick Kwiatkoski in the fourth round in 2016. Their athleticism closes down windows in the passing game and provides speed to chase down plays in the run game.
Veteran and young player, working in tandem. Papa Bear (not George Halas) and cub.
Eddie Jackson’s ascension to one of the top playmakers at the position in his rookie season wouldn’t be possible without the signing of veterans Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper in the offseason. Ditto for Kyle Fuller’s physical play.
Fuller may not be as good as fans and Chicago media have made him out to be (Hub Arkish suggested earlier this season he should be an All-Pro… relax), but he’s been aggressive and confident, something he’d lost after a roller-coaster rookie season.
More quietly, Adrian Amos has produced the most surprising season. The 2015 fifth-round pick is the No. 2 rated safety according to Pro Football Focus and has been all over the field for the Bears.
In Week 6 he turned an interception into a 90-yard touchdown, but his statistics belie his importance to this defense. His steady play sideline-to-sideline, in the box and deep, allows Eddie Jackson to roam the middle, erase mistakes and create on the back end as a center fielder.
Ryan Pace built this team the way a modern defense should be built: draft and develop young talent, supplementing them with targeted, undervalued free agents with years of their primes left to give.
The Hicks contract looks like a steal. Danny Trevathan likely can’t live up, statistically or in terms of impact, to the big-money contract he got, but that’s fine. Providing veteran leadership and experience has qualitative value that can’t be measured by statistics.
In 2015, Chicago was 29th in schedule-weighted DVOA according to Football Outsiders. The Bears fielded an anemic defense without playmakers, or even replacement-level talent at certain positions. They finished 23rd against the pass and dead last against the run.
A baby step for the Baby Bears last season took them up to 25th in weighted DVOA. Chicago ended up 17th against the pass and 29th against the run, but the team just looked better.
The Bears stymied good offenses, made teams work for everything they got, and simply weren’t good enough offensively to stay off the field.
This year tells a different story.
Vic Fangio’s unit sits 10th in weighted DVOA to this point in the season, 10th against the pass, and 15th defending the run.
They’ve added key free agents, hit on a couple draft picks, and taken a leap under one of the best defensive minds in football, all with a quarterback situation that has been less than steady.
Rookie Mitchell Trubisky hasn’t thrown for even 200 yards in his four starts, and yet the Bears are 2-2 in those games. Chicago beat the Panthers in a contest where Trubisky attempted just seven passes.
In fact, Trubisky is 12-23 for 220 yards with one touchdown total in the two games the Bears have won since he took over as the starter; 70 of those yards came on a Tarik Cohen catch-and-run.
Chicago is winning because of a burgeoning behemoth on defense.
They’re Baby Bears for now, but by season’s end they could be full-grown and more dangerous than ever.