LAKE FOREST – The biggest question facing the 3-0 Bears today is are they actually any good or just a product of a marshmallow schedule and some very good fortune?
It’s hard to say right now, but here is something we do know: they are built to live and die with their defense, and that’s where you’ll find the biggest difference between this year’s edition and the others of most recent vintage.
In 2017, the Bears defense was 11th vs. the run and 12th in average gain per run allowed. In their magical 2018 season, they were first and fourth, respectively, and last season, they were ninth and sixth.
Through three games this year, the Bears defense is a disturbing 17th in rushing yards allowed and 26th in average gain allowed.
Magnifying the problem the Lions are just 22nd in the league running the ball, the Giants are dead last at 32nd, and the Falcons are 18th.
The numbers scream that the way they’ve been dented by their first three opponents if they don’t shore up their run defense right now, they could be in real trouble.
Stopping the run is not the province of any one player, but much of the focus will fall on the nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme and the inside linebackers, and it is no coincidence the Bears are without one of the best two-gap run stuffers in the league in Eddie Goldman, and both Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith are trying to bounce back from season-ending 2019 injuries.
It isn’t fair to lay extra blame on Bilal Nichols, who is starting in Goldman’s spot. This isn’t what he was drafted for and he relies more on his athleticism and quickness than brute strength and ability to absorb blocks.
I asked him if he wished he’d had time to add some bulk to play inside and after feigning annoyance that I was suggesting he was too small – I think he was kidding with me? – Nichols said, “As long as you play good technique that's all that matters. I'm not the biggest but I'm not the smallest either.
“As long as you go in there with the right mindset just trying to dominate your guy and you play with good technique, everything else is going to follow.”
Nichols is a great kid with a chance to be a very good one-gap defensive tackle, but he has not been able to refuse to be moved off the line of scrimmage more than occasionally this year.
Trevathan is the other player who’s been under the microscope, clearly not yet the excellent run defender he had been before suffering a gruesome arm/elbow injury.
The fact that he was re-signed to a three-year, $21.7 million contract with $13.6 million guaranteed at the age of 30 while 27 year old Nick Kwiatkoski was allowed to leave for Las Vegas for almost exactly the same deal after shining as Trevathan’s backup last season has ratcheted up the focus on him.
He did take a step forward Week 3 in Atlanta, and the hope is that after almost a full year away from game speed, he is just slow getting his sea legs back.
I asked Matt Nagy without singling out Trevathan where he thinks players are at in general having missed the entire offseason and exhibition season due to the pandemic.
“This year is just so different," Nagy said. “You see it with what is going on with COVID and make sure you stay on top of that.
“You start getting weather changes, the bodies are changing, you have injuries that are occurring and so when you start evaluating players as to where they’re at, I would say there is probably a little bit longer time that we would wait to be able to get concerned if someone is not what you think they are, or if they are having really good games, is it going to last longer?”
There is certainly reason to hope the Bears' struggles with the run are an anomaly that will sort itself out over the next couple of games.
But there are also real reasons to fear it isn’t, and if that proves to be the case, these Bears will be right next to the rest of us on the couch come January, and it won’t be just because of the quarterback.