Specifically, the Bears’ front seven will need to tighten up against the run – where the team struggled mightily down the stretch last season.
Teams ran wild against the Bears late in the season, pummeling a deteriorating defense ravaged by injuries by pounding the ball through the offensive line, past the front seven, and into (and past) the secondary. Things weren’t always bad for the Bears’ run defense, which played well early in the season until Danny Trevathan’s knee injury and Jerrell Freeman’s suspension sent the Bears’ two best and most experienced linebackers to the sideline. If the Bears are to be believed and the front seven is mostly healthy, then it will be a reason the team turns the tide on opposing rushing attacks.
Zack Pearson of Scout.com’s Bear Report digs up this nugget regarding the polar opposites of the Week 1 rushing matchup between the Bears and Atlanta Falcons:
#Bears allowed 121.9 ypg on ground last season (27th) while ATL ran for 120.5 (5th). Chicago should be better in 2017 but big test in Wk 1.
— Zack Pearson (@Zack_Pearson) September 5, 2017
Only five teams allowed more rushing yards than the Bears, while just four teams were more successful gaining yards in the running game than the Falcons. Eek.
On paper, it’s a mismatch.
The Falcons offense is led by running back Devonta Freeman, but he is guided by Alex Mack (second best run block grade among centers), Ryan Schraeder (third best run block grade among offensive tackles), and Andy Levitre (19th best run block grade among guards), according to Pro Football Focus. Even tight end Austin Hooper chipped in as a plus run blocker, earning a 73.2 run block grade that ranked ninth at his position last year. If this group performs to its capabilities, stopping a running game that finished 12th in attempts and fifth in average yards per carry and Matt Ryan’s play action attack will be near impossible.
It’s not as if the Bears will be hopeless against the run to start 2017, but they’re operating with a razor thin margin of error.
Defensive end Akiem Hicks owned an 85.6 run defense grade, which was 11th among interior defenders. Put him next to a healthy Eddie Goldman (who earned a respectable 81.2 grade in 197 snaps before a season-ending injury), and in front of the Freeman (83.9) and Trevathan (80.9), who thinks the Bears could have the NFL’s best ILB tandem, and the Bears have some building blocks to work with when going against Atlanta’s rushing offense.
Unfortunately, the Bears had three members of the front seven who posted sub-70 run defense grades while playing a minimum of 100 run defense snaps. And seeing Jonathan Bullard (57.0) and Leonard Floyd (44.3) ranking among the league’s worst run defenders (by PFF’s standards) is admittedly troublesome. But if both Bullard and Floyd have taken steps forward in their development, then it can go a long way toward smoothing out some of the defense’s deficiencies in stopping the run.
It will be difficult for the Bears to be worse to be as bad at stopping the run as they were last year, and to be fair, this group should be better than what the final stats showed in 2016.