It wasn’t that long ago that the Bears were known as a stifling defense, playing the famed Tampa-2 scheme under Lovie Smith and current Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. However, over the last two years there has been a drastic shift in the Bears defensive philosophy as head coach John Fox brought in Vic Fangio to coordinate his defense in 2015. Fangio was Jim Harbaugh’s coordinator with the 49ers from 2011-14 and runs a 3-4 scheme, and needless to say there has been a significant overhaul in personnel with the Bears having replaced almost every single starter since the end of 2014.
Prior to suffering an injury against the Eagles on Monday night, second-year player Eddie Goldman was the anchor of this unit. A highly-touted prospect drafted early in the second-round of the 2015 draft, Goldman has fantastic size for a nose tackle at 6-4, 320 and posted an impressive 4.5 sacks as a rookie. Despite only a season of NFL experience Goldman may be the best player on the Bears defense and losing him is a huge blow. Will Sutton is Goldman’s likely replacement, although he was nearly released during training camp after the Bears made him available for trade and is only a back-up caliber player at best. The starting defensive ends are Mitch Unrein and Akiem Hicks, two journeymen who are each on their third teams since 2014. Unrein is a replacement-level player who is a favorite of John Fox since his time with the Broncos, while Hicks has been impressive, if inconsistent, in stints with the Saints and Patriots. Hicks has outstanding size and length at 6-5, 330+ and is very nimble for a man with his frame. He has 9.5 career sacks over four seasons, not a particularly impressive number when taken at face value, but it becomes much more impressive when you consider his size and that he’s generally asked to play the run first.
Behind the starters are Cornelius Washington, and rookie third-round pick Jonathan Bullard. Without Goldman this unit will suffer greatly as Hicks is the only player you’d want starting for you in an ideal world as Unrein, Sutton, Washington, and Bullard are all replacement-level players at this point. Bullard is one to watch for the future but he isn’t a major threat right now, only two games into his career.
The Bears have significantly overhauled their linebacker group this offseason, although in this case the best laid plans have certainly gone awry. Jerrell Freeman, formerly of the Colts, and Danny Trevathan, formerly of the Broncos, were signed to play inside linebacker. Both are rangy with size and speed, and are able to play the run and pass effectively, although Trevathan is now out for an extended period of time with a thumb injury sustained against the Eagles on Monday night. On top of those acquisitions, Leonard Floyd out of Georgia was drafted with the ninth pick of the 2016 draft. The plan was to add these three to a solid group of outside linebackers in Pernell McPhee, Willie Young, and 2015 sack leader Lamarr Houston, although McPhee and Houston have both sustained major injuries and Houston is now out for the season.
As for the players who are still healthy, Floyd has immediately stepped into the starting lineup next to veteran Willie Young, even before the Houston injury. Floyd is a highly athletic, yet raw prospect, who has great length, quickness, and an unlimited ceiling. With that said, he is undersized at this stage of his career, weighing in at a rail thin 6-6, 244, and with the lack of depth at the position he will likely wear down if forced to play major snaps. After a quiet start to his career with the Lions Willie Young has blossomed over the last two seasons with the Bears, posting 10 sacks in 2014 and 6.5 in 2015. Young is better suited as a 4-3 defensive end but he has shown that he is capable of playing as a pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker, similar to long forgotten Cowboy Greg Ellis.
With so many injuries to this unit expect to see Floyd, Young, and Freeman playing almost the entire game Sunday night without much depth behind them. Veteran Sam Acho will likely be the fourth starter with rookie Christian Jones rotating in.
This is the undoubted weak link of the Bears defense. The starters at cornerback are journeyman Tracy Porter, a 30-year-old on his fourth team since 2012 who is prone to giving up big plays, and Kyle Fuller, a former first-round pick who has struggled since entering the league in 2014 despite managing six career interceptions. Fuller has had stretches of impressive play but overall he has been very inconsistent. He has also been inactive for the first two games with an injured knee and it is unknown whether or not he will play on Sunday night. If he is unable to go, second year UDFA Jacoby Glenn will start opposite Porter. Behind the starters are second year UDFA Bryce Callahan and rookie Deiondre Hall, neither of whom are much more than replacement-level players. Callahan may also miss the game with a concussion suffered against the Eagles, which would be another big blow since he is their nickel corner with Fuller out.
The starting safeties are 2015 fifth-round pick Adrian Amos and second-year UDFA Harold Jones-Quartey. These two have both shown flashes, especially Amos, but right now this may be the worst starting safety combination in the entire league. To make matters worse, Amos suffered a concussion against the Eagles and may be out Sunday night as well. Overall, even when healthy the Bears lack anything resembling a consistent, high-level performer at either cornerback or safety. If players like Amos, Fuller and Callahan are unable to go Sunday night the unit the Bears put out there will undoubtedly be one of the worst secondaries in the league.
Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage
- One of the worst secondaries in the NFL, even when healthy, which could lead to big play opportunities all over the field
- Weak-coverage OLB’s could be taken advantage of with Jason Witten or Cole Beasley lined up in the slot, or Ezekiel Elliott/Lance Dunbar out of the backfield. There is absolutely no chance the Bears OLB’s could keep up if the Cowboys can get them in a 1-on-1 matchup
- Without Goldman the Bears lack difference makers and depth along the defensive line, if the Cowboys offense can sustain drives the Bears line will almost certainly wear down
What The Cowboys Must Fear
- With so many key contributors out (Goldman, Trevathan, McPhee, and Houston, and possibly Amos, Callahan, and Fuller) the only logical way the Cowboys offense won’t be effective is if they beat themselves or if the Bears have a fluke performance.
Long-time Bears kicker Robbie Gould was recently released and replaced by Connor Barth, formerly of the Broncos and Buccaneers. Barth has converted nearly 85% of his field goal attempts in his seven-year career, although he missed a chip shot Monday night. Deonte Thompson is a threat at kick returner, averaging nearly 28 yards per return since entering the league, while Eddie Royal is the primary punt returner. Royal was a very dangerous returner early in his career and has shown hints of returning to that form, particularly with a 65-yard touchdown return against the Eagles.