Roquan Smith, Duke Shelley, and the Other Heroes of Chicago's Defense
Early alarm bells started to go off after the Chicago Bears allowed 34 points to the new-look Los Angeles Rams on Sunday Night Football in Week 1. Nobody expected the Bears offense to do anything of note with Andy Dalton behind center, but the defense was supposed to be good. They were projected as a top-10 defense by DVOA headed into the year, but they looked nowhere near that strong against the Rams. Now four weeks removed from that Week 1 meltdown, it is starting to feel like that game was an aberration more than anything.
The Bears are now the fifth-best defense by DVOA through five weeks. They rank fourth against the pass and 11th against the run. And it's not as though they are beating up on slouches. Though they have not quite run the gauntlet of the league's best offenses, they have faced the 11th-toughest schedule of offenses to this point in the year. They have produced a negative DVOA (negative is good for defenses) in each of the past four weeks, even the Cleveland game in which their own offense constantly had them behind the eight ball. Nobody is going to crown them as the league's best defense, but they have been legit as of late.
Truthfully, there are too many good and interesting things going on with Chicago's defense to touch on in one piece. The continued development of second-year cornerback Jaylon Johnson has been a boon. Rotational players along the defensive line such as Mario Edwards Jr., rookie Khyiris Tonga, and Trevis Gipson have given the team a legit two-deep up front. Even the non-Eddie Jackson safeties (especially DeAndre Houston-Carson) have stepped up as solid players. We will not get into all those things today, but they are important pieces to the Bears' defensive puzzle.
Instead, let's start with what the Bears have done as a pass-rushing unit. The Bears hold a 10.0% adjusted sack rate through five weeks, putting them just barely behind the Carolina Panthers at 10.1%. They also have the highest raw sack total with 18. More often than not, those kinds of sack totals would be paired with heavy blitz numbers, but that is not the case with the Bears. They rank 29th in blitz percentage per Pro Football Reference. Their scheme is less about the volume of their pressure packages and more about the timing and quality of them, and they have delivered great results with that scheme so far.
Part of that is Khalil Mack being a superstar and Robert Quinn having a revival after a down 2020 season. Those two make it easy for the Bears to rush four and threaten the quarterback. Defensive coordinator Sean Desai can feel at ease rushing four and letting those guys get after it with a numbers advantage in coverage behind them. When Desai does pick his spots to get creative with this unit, though, the design and execution has been wonderful.
Here the Bears have Joe Burrow and the Bengals in third-and-10. Chicago only puts four on the line of scrimmage, but Mack and Quinn are together just outside the left tackle, with Mack being the inside player between the two. Not only are these two aligned on the weak side of the formation, but the Bears have a 0-technique over the center, which is going to occupy him and not allow for any slide protection help. The back could stay in and help, in theory, but that generally is only going to happen if the back is looking to pick up a blitz, which is not what the Bears threaten here. With all of that, the Bears get themselves a two-on-two twist situation with Mack fighting through the guard's outside shoulder to open up space for Quinn looping inside, making perfect use of Mack's power and Quinn's speed.
This time, the Bears "force" Detroit into four-man sliding one way while they manipulate the weakened pass protection on the other side. From the center to the left side of the formation, Chicago has a 0-technique over the center (63), Edwards standing up at 3-techique, Quinn on the edge, and linebacker Roquan Smith threatening to add on as a blitzer. The Lions also have to account for potential pressure from the nickel (Duke Shelley, 20). Sliding to the left would shore up the overloaded side, and also avoid "wasting" a guard on a blitzing safety when they have a chance to pass that block off to a smaller body.
As such, the Lions four-man slide left to handle all the bigger bodies, leaving just the one defensive end (Mack) and "smaller" body blitzer (Houston-Carson, 36) for the right tackle and running back. In theory, the right tackle (67) holds the edge versus Mack and the running back (32) picks up the safety blitzing through the B gap. That's a fair matchup, at least as far as body types go, but the Bears manipulate this two-on-two by having the safety work outside to mash into the tackle, giving Mack space to loop back in and bully the running back. That is a situation in which Mack will generate a big play on every time.
Chicago's ability to produce sacks has been arguably the most critical part of their success, but Mack and Quinn are not the only major difference-makers in Chicago's front seven. Roquan Smith has also been a stud. While Smith may be best known for his head-on-fire plays in the run game, it is his versatility in coverage that has allowed the Bears defense to adapt to anything. Smith still gets beat from time to time, just like any coverage defender, but the breadth of assignments he can comfortably take on and execute is impressive and gives the Bears more tools in their arsenal than other defenses.
For starters, here is Smith handling Odell Beckham Jr. from the slot to the offense's right-hand side at the bottom of the screen. He starts this rep with clear inside leverage, which helps, but a lot of linebackers might be quick to follow Beckham's outside step and give up their leverage inside. This is an athletic matchup basically every linebacker loses, and they know it. Smith remains disciplined, though, and knows he has help in the flat anyway, giving him the confidence to squeeze the air out of Beckham's route and take away any possibility of a clean catch point.
The closest pass-catcher to Smith (lined up on the hashmarks to the offense's right) in this rep is also a wide receiver, Bryan Edwards (89). Chicago is showing a two-high look pre-snap, meaning the middle of the field is "open." That suggests a linebacker (Smith) is going to have to carry a wide receiver up the seam if they want any inside presence on it, and that is a matchup quarterbacks are going to love every time. It does not work out the way Derek Carr was hoping this time around. Smith does a great job getting depth and reading the receiver's route to trigger upfield right alongside him, finishing the play off by reaching his arm between the ball and the receiver to break up this pass on the way down.
Here, Smith finds himself all by his lonesome against running back Kenyan Drake to the bottom of the screen. For many linebackers, this can be a daunting position to be in, but for Smith, it's plenty manageable. Smith does an excellent job remaining patient with his feet at the line of scrimmage and squeezing Drake to the sideline as best as he can once he gets vertical. The sticky coverage forces Drake and Carr into a miscommunication, with Carr believing Drake should continue down the sideline and Drake trying to snap the route off for a back shoulder opportunity.
Let's go back to the Bengals game for one last example. To the bottom of the screen, Smith is on the outside over a running back and cornerback Jaylon Johnson (33) is over the tight end next to him. Both players are in a press alignment, which would generally make it tougher to pass routes off since each player has less line of sight to work with. The Bears trust that Smith is both smart enough to see this two-man concept developing and pass off the inside player, as well as be able to handle the tight end vertically if it came to that. Johnson also makes a great play, but the Bears can feel comfortable with having this adjustment in their defense in the first place because Smith can handle all of that in coverage.
The last key component to the Bears defense is not really about specific schematic advantages or the gravity of superstar players. It is about buy-in. It is hard to quantify, or even perfectly qualify, but there is an energy and urgency that the Bears defense plays with. Part of that is how confident they are in what they see, which can be credited to how the coaches communicate the scheme, and the other part of it is how willing every player is to get physical, particularly the defensive backs. The safeties are physical against the run, the cornerbacks press well, and all of the defensive backs are more than willing to tackle. No defensive back on Chicago's roster exemplifies that as well as nickel corner Duke Shelley.
Virtually every offense in the league will have run plays in which a receiver in a tight or reduced split tries to cut off the nickel from getting into the run fit. It is rare to ever see Shelley (20) get cut off in these scenarios. His sense for keying on run versus pass plays is excellent and he is not afraid to trigger downhill, letting him slip into the run fit in a hurry and muck it up with the rest of the front-seven guys. For a defense that plays out of two-high as often as the Bears, it sure is nice to get this kind of disruption from one of the smaller bodies directly in the fit.
Shelley's trigger and physicality show up in the passing game as well. In this clip, the Browns have third-and-1 and things look decent for the running back once he catches the ball. Baker Mayfield could lead this throw better, but the back needs just one yard and has space to work. This should be a conversion. However, Shelley triggers down in a timely fashion and finishes the play with a strong tackle to prevent Cleveland from moving the sticks. It may not be a pass deflection or a pick, but these are the kinds of plays that help get defenses off the field.
As well as the Bears defense has been playing, the next two weeks will be telling for their true quality. They have the Packers and the Buccaneers, who are both in a different tier of offense than anyone the Bears have faced over the past month. The Browns may reside in that upper echelon of offenses as well, but Mayfield is not Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, and those latter two quarterbacks will test a Bears secondary that may be overperforming to some degree.
So long as the Bears' offense does not capitulate the way they did against the Browns, this defense has a great opportunity to prove itself. It is safe to say the Bears defense is very good, but we do not yet know if they can be elite. There is no better trial by fire than facing two of this generation's quarterbacks back-to-back.