Asked if the Bears’ new-fangled defense under Matt Eberflus and Alan Williams had made an impression on him, running back Khalil Herbert didn’t hesitate.
“I’ve got a lot of impressions — especially the linebacker group,” Herbert said. “We have some really athletic linebackers — a lot of guys that can cover and hit and come downhill and hit. Especially from the one-on-ones, seeing the different things they can do in pass pro and us running routes out of the backfield and we try to make them miss in certain drills. We have a really athletic group. The defense as a whole I feel like is going to be really solid.”
It remains to be seen if Herbert is right (a linebacker corps still without Roquan Smith making an impression is probably not a bad sign.) But as training-camp narratives go, cliche things like hustle, intensity and aggressiveness and putting the right player in the right position tend to be more reliable on defense. Offense relies on precision, timing, chemistry and a quarterback — concepts that are much harder to instill and a weapon that is much harder to develop. Offense is more scheme dependent. Defense is playing football.
“One thing I’ve understood is that in football, you can talk scheme and that’s fun,” linebacker Nick Morrow said. “I’ve been a part of scheme-heavy defenses. [But] defensively, you have to win with effort. That’s been shown time and time again. Running to the football creates turnovers — punching the ball out, picking it up, recovering. I think effort is definitely No. 1. He’s putting that on his plate for us for sure.”
So while the Bears’ offense under coordinator Luke Getsy is likely to be a work-in-progress — and perhaps a little messy — early in the 2022 season if not throughout, the Bears’ defense could be a dependable anchor from the start.
Working against an offense clearly on training wheels is a big advantage in training camp. And the Bears’ defense, learning a new scheme itself, is feeling pretty good about itself and the chance to hit the ground running in 2022.
It helps to have two coaches in Eberflus and Alan Williams who think and teach like coordinators — much like the Bears had with Lovie Smith/Rod Marinelli (2009-12) and Vic Fangio/Ed Donatell (2015-18). Eberflus and Williams did the same thing with the Colts in 2018 — taking a nondescript group, adding a talented second-round rookie in linebacker Shaquille Leonard and improving the Colts’ defense from 30th to 10th in points allowed. They know how to teach this defense and get quick results.
“Absolutely,” said defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad, who played for Eberflus with the Colts from 2018-21. “But most importantly, it’s just getting the right guys. We have the right guys that want to buy in and want to do it. Once you get the right guys, I think it’s much easier to take what the coach is teaching and apply it.”
Safety Eddie Jackson, one of two holdovers from the 2018 defense that led the NFL in scoring defense, already can see chemistry building and the “buy-in” to Eberflus’ demanding requirements paying off.
“I feel like we built the chemistry early on in OTAs, so right now we’re just flying,” Jackson said. “This year, we haven’t heard one person complain about anything — not about a day, not about a period, not about how hot it is. We’re still going.
“And I’ve been on a bunch of teams where you have guys who don’t complain and just do the work; and then you have guys who complain about everything. You don’t have those types of guys [on this defense]. That’s helping us because … everyone knows that this man next to me, he’s gonna go out and fight these same minutes that I’m gonna fight.”
But still, it’s August. The Bears haven’t played even a preseason game yet. The Bears early chemistry is promising but not predictive.
“That’s something I kind of struggle with,” Morrow said. “When it’s the preseason, a lot of people are like, ‘Yeah, everything’s good.’ There’s no adversity. I’m always looking for the adversity and how we respond to it — that Murphy’s Law.
“So I don’t want to get too high or too low when it comes to preseason. But I do want to look at my individual performance and where I’m at. But looking as a collective whole — that’s really hard to do.”
For his part, Eberflus called the defense a “work in progress,” but didn’t dismiss comparisons to the quick-fix job he did with the Colts in 2018.
“Yeah, it’s similar,” he said. “It’s the same thing we did when Rod [Marinelli] came to us in Dallas. We did it in Indianapolis and now we’re doing it here with the Bears. It takes time and it’s a process. But we enjoy it. It’s a fun process to go through.”