'Pressure is paramount': Coming off 5-sack effort, Bears hoping to energize defense

Yannick Ngakoue had one of five Bears sacks against the Commanders. G Fiume/Getty Images

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Hours after his team celebrated its first win in 346 days, Chicago Bears coach Matt Eberflus was in the thick of self-scouting his defense during the mini-bye week following the Thursday game.

He met with coaches and zeroed in on the unit’s biggest problems. Through five weeks, the Bears are 31st in red zone defense (77.8%) and have allowed opponents to convert on 57.35% of third-down attempts, which ranks 32nd.

Finding solutions is easier after a victory, especially after the defense showed signs of improvement. Chicago beat Washington 40-20 on Oct. 5, the first time the Bears defense had held an opponent to under 25 points in 15 games. Instead of having to go back to the drawing board, the win gave the Bears something to build on.

“I wouldn’t even say a weight has been lifted,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. “I think it’s just the beginning. It would suck to get that one win and come out here and not let it continue over and roll over. We want to build it. If we don’t start a win streak, that would be more of a letdown than anything.”

Eberflus’ responsibilities have increased considerably since he assumed defensive playcalling duties Week 2 before the sudden resignation of former defensive coordinator Alan Williams. Being down a staff member led the Bears coach to explore the addition of a senior defensive analyst who would help enhance Chicago’s scheme while working ahead on future opponents.

A turnaround after a 1-4 start will require an all-hands-on-deck approach. Building upon the Bears' strongest defensive performance thus far – one where Eberflus showed a more aggressive approach with the way he dialed up pressures – is where Chicago hopes to start.

The Bears’ pass rush had a prime opportunity to kickstart its effectiveness against Washington quarterback Sam Howell, who had been sacked a league-high 24 times going into the Week 5 matchup with Chicago. The defense came away with five sacks, more than doubling their season total (2) up to that point, and 11 quarterback hits.

The team effort up front resulted in the Bears’ highest blitz rate (28.3%) of the Eberflus era and a 31.7% pressure rate, the second-highest of the season. Chicago sent extra rushers on 17 of Howell’s 51 dropbacks, which held Washington to 3.9 yards per attempt, the sixth-best in the NFL in Week 5.

“Pressure is paramount, and we’re going to have to continue to do that, if it’s with four, five or six guys,” Eberflus said. “I think that’s important to be able to do that. With our secondary coming back, we’ll be able to be more flexible with that in terms of pressure and what types of pressure we have.”

Chicago’s next two games are at home against teams with sub-.500 records: Minnesota (1-4) and Las Vegas (2-3). The variance Eberflus utilized in sending different pressure players will be pivotal against experienced veterans quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo.

Having their pass rush get home against the Vikings will require a different game plan.

Cousins has successfully counteracted the blitz through five games. His 63.9% completion percentage when blitzed ranks 12th, and his seven passing touchdowns and zero interceptions in those situations are the league-best marks.

One weapon the Bears won’t have to worry about is receiver Justin Jefferson, who was put on the IR with a strained right hamstring.

“You’ve got to have the timing of [blitzing the QB], the rhythm and timing of it, when to call it, disguise it,” Eberflus said. “You’ve got to pick and choose your moments, because he is very effective [at beating the blitz].”

Against the Commanders, the Bears generated two turnovers: an interception by Greg Stroman Jr. and a forced fumble by rookie cornerback Terell Smith. That was the magic number they had hoped to reach after recording zero takeaways in losses to the Packers, Buccaneers and Broncos.

“If you’re ever plus-two in a game in takeaways, there’s a good chance you can win a game,” defensive end DeMarcus Walker said. “That’s the goal is to be plus-two every week and continue to rally them up and be a dominant defense.”

A more productive pass rush, coupled with generating turnovers, might be the key for a defensive turnaround. Aiding that production is the prospect of health in the secondary for the first time since the season opener.

Cornerback Kyler Gordon (hand) was designated to return from injured reserve this week while cornerback Jaylon Johnson (hamstring) and safety Eddie Jackson (foot) returned to practice Wednesday in a limited capacity.

“That’ll bring the energy, bring the juice,” Johnson said. “I think the DBs last week started that off. I think they played a very solid game holding that down for us, so we definitely have to get back and up the energy, up the execution. Just get back what we were missing.”