3-and-out: Reviewing the 2016 Chicago Bears on defense and special teams

Injuries and a low number of impact plays hurt the Bears' 'D' in 2016

By KEVIN FISHBAIN — kfishbain@profootballweekly.com
Published: Updated:
Chicago Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks (96) celebrates after a quarterback sack during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Chicago Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks (96) celebrates after a quarterback sack during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) — Charles Rex Arbogast

DEFENSIVE LINE

What worked: Akiem Hicks proved to be a very good free-agent addition for Ryan Pace. He started every game and led the front seven in playing time. Hicks finished the season with 54 tackles, a career-high seven sacks and he led the team with 17 QB hits. Hicks’ strength and pursuit of the quarterback stood out, and he also proved to be a locker-room leader. When Eddie Goldman was healthy, he was effective against the run.

What didn’t: For Goldman, it was availability. An ankle injury kept the team’s nose tackle out of the lineup for 10 games. Rookie Jonathan Bullard was a healthy scratch for a game and clearly needs a good offseason to continue to develop. He had one sack and four tackles for loss. Depth was an issue with Goldman’s injury, as the Bears went with journeyman C.J. Wilson at the nose for the last month.

Moment that mattered: The image of Goldman leaving the field on a cart in the Week Two game against the Eagles was tough. The injury wasn’t as bad as it seemed, but clearly it was something he couldn't fully recover from, and it cost a promising player a full season.

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

What worked: Willie Young, who signed a contract extension in August, got off to a great start with six sacks in the first six weeks. He also was strong setting the edge against the run. When in the lineup, we saw impact plays from Leonard Floyd, like his safety vs. San Francisco or strip-sack-recovery-touchdown in Green Bay. Pernell McPhee, at times, looked like the force that they signed to a big contract in 2015.

What didn’t: Young had only one QB hit in the final seven games. McPhee missed the first six games following offseason knee surgery and never really got into a rhythm as a full-time player. Floyd on the field has work to do in terms of consistency and versatility of pass-rush moves, and he needs to fix his technique – keeping his head up – to avoid concussions. The top pick played in 12 games.

Moment that mattered: Floyd’s big play in Green Bay was the highlight in that Thursday night loss and the best glimpse of what the No. 9 pick is capable of thanks to rare speed, length and athleticism. He just has to stay on the field.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

What worked: It may have taken a bit for Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman to get fully acclimated to playing with each other and in Vic Fangio’s defense, but once they did, they were very good against the run. Freeman was the team’s most consistent defender the first 10 games. Nick Kwiatkoski improved mightily as the season went along, showing well at the point of attack.

What didn’t: Trevathan missed time early in the season with a broken thumb and then tore his patellar tendon, which could keep him sidelined into the 2017 season. Freeman, the team’s tackles leader, was suspended for PEDs following Week 11, missing four games. During that time, the run defense took a hit. As strong as Freeman and Trevathan were against the run, neither created a turnover.

Moment that mattered: Trevathan’s injury, which came late in Week 12, followed Freeman’s suspension, forcing the Bears to use Kwiatkoski and John Timu at inside ‘backer. The Bears are confident Trevathan will have a full recovery, but he may have to start 2017 on the PUP list. The absences did, however, allow Kwiatkoski to get valuable experience.

CORNERBACKS

What worked: For much of the season, Tracy Porter showed the ability to shut down opposing top receivers and make plays on the ball, playing through injuries. He also was a clear leader for the young position room. Cre’Von LeBlanc was a bright spot, leading the team with 10 passes defensed.

What didn’t: Sensing a theme yet? Injuries were an issue here. Kyle Fuller didn’t play all season because of a knee injury. Bryce Callahan missed five games. Deiondre’ Hall missed eight games. LeBlanc missed three games. The biggest problem with this group, though, was its inability to take the ball away, accounting for only six interceptions in a season when the Bears set a franchise record for fewest takeaways.

Moment that mattered: The few interceptions this group did collect were notable, like Hall’s in Week Four to seal a win vs. the Lions or LeBlanc’s pick six in Detroit in Week 14. But the gaffes were more glaring, like Jordy Nelson getting past LeBlanc for a 60-yarder to lead the Packers past the Bears, or Porter losing his footing against Jacksonville, allowing the Jaguars to finish their comeback win.

SAFETIES

What worked: Not a ton from this group. Adrian Amos certainly played well in the box, showing a physicality that was a knock on him in the pre-draft process. Harold Jones-Quartey did have an interception and five passes defensed, while Amos had three tackles for loss.

What didn’t: This group also is at fault for the team’s futility in taking the ball away. Jones-Quartey had the only interception for a safety and Amos the only fumble recovery. Both players were benched at a certain point this season, with Chris Prosinski and Deon Bush getting time and no one truly stepping up to seize the job.

Moment that mattered: Generally it’s OK not to notice safeties, and this group didn’t give up huge plays, but there’s no moment that stands out, showing how far behind the Bears are at this position.

SPECIAL TEAMS

What worked: Pat O’Donnell had a solid year punting. After a shaky start, Connor Barth connected on 13 of his last 15 field goals and was 31-of-32 on extra points. Josh Bellamy and Sherrick McManis have become two of the more effective and reliable gunners in the league.

What didn’t: The kickoff-return game was ineffective, as Deonte Thompson’s average dropped 6.2 yards from last season. With Eddie Royal injured, no one stepped up at punt returner. Barth’s misses were an issue early on and the coverage teams allowed a punt-return touchdown in Detroit.

Moment that mattered: In Week Two, Royal returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown, one week after he had a 31-yard return. Unfortunately, injuries were an issue again for Royal, and that was the last true highlight for Bears special teams.

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