Defensive dominance has been the Bears’ identity throughout the franchise’s history, but they seem to have finally found a front office that values both sides of the ball equally.
In fact, the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that their defense has become an afterthought this offseason.

That is not surprising considering the substantial additions the team has made on the offensive side of the ball, but it is still noteworthy considering how much promise the defense showed last season.

The Bears finished with the league’s top-ranked rushing defense last season, allowing just over 86 yards per game. They also tied for the league lead with 22 interceptions, 16 of which came in the final seven games.

Down the stretch, they played lights out on the defensive side of the ball, often taking over games even despite a lack of consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

While the Bears had some trouble getting to opposing passers, they did have one consistent edge threat in Montez Sweat, who earned his first career Pro Bowl nod after setting a career-high with 12.5 sacks.

The defensive end’s addition to Chicago’s defense cannot be understated, and he is a major reason the defense performed as well as they did over the second half of the season.

“We’re trying to pick up where we left off from last year,” Sweat said earlier this month at veteran minicamp.

“We lost two guys, two great guys up front, Justin [Jones] and Yannick Ngakoue, but we got some young guys that are really stepping up and an experienced guy like Jake Martin that’s really making some noise out there. So, I am pretty excited about what I’m seeing.”

Besides Sweat, the Bears have a few more players who are among the premier players at their positions, such as Jaylon Johnson, Tremaine Edmunds, and T.J. Edwards. Johnson is coming off his best season in which he was named Pro Football Focus’ top graded cover man, and the latter two give the Bears their most talented linebacker duo since Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs graced the middle of the field for Chicago’s defense over a decade ago. It’s also worth noting that Kyler Gordon has developed into one of the game’s top slot corners, even if he still is flying under the radar in that conversation.

Aside from Johnson and Gordon, the Bears have a few other pieces in the secondary that could make them one of the league’s premier units. Tyrique Stevenson will hope to build off an impressive rookie season in which he led all first-year players with four interceptions. Meanwhile, the addition of Kevin Byard could allow Jaquan Brisker to play a more creative and versatile role on the back end of the defense rather than being forced to play him in the box (since Eddie Jackson struggled against the run).

If there is one glaring issue on the defensive side of the ball, it would be the lack of a proven pass-rushing threat opposite Montez Sweat. Barring a late-offseason acquisition (amongst an underwhelming group of edge rushers), DeMarcus Walker is slated to lock down the second defensive end spot. While he is a dependable and versatile option on the line, he doesn’t offer much value on third down, which could become a huge issue if Gervon Dexter Sr. doesn’t take a step forward as a pass-rusher.

The coaching staff is also hoping that rookie Austin Booker, who was seen as a massive value in the fifth round (many believe he would have been a day two selection next year had he gone back to school), can quickly acclimate his game to the pros and be ready to take on a supporting role right out of the gate. However, history is not on their side in that regard, as very few fifth-round defensive ends contribute right away, especially those as raw as the Kansas State product.

There are also still a few (as in, very few) veterans on the open market who could step in and patch the Bears’ biggest remaining weakness, including Yannick Ngakoue, whom the team signed to beef up the edge rusher spot last offseason. Many expected the 29-year-old to provide more juice against the pass (he finished with only four sacks, half as many as he had in his second-worst season), but he played better than expected against the run. Justin Houston and Carl Lawson are two other players the team could target to add another veteran to the room. However, either addition would be nothing more than a Band-Aid at this stage of their career.

While the team’s pass rush (or potential lack thereof) will be essential, their development will be the biggest determining factor for the Bears’ defensive success this season.

Chicago has a very young nucleus, relying on the continued progression of a handful of vital second and third-year players. Ryan Poles has done a good job of assembling young talent across the entire roster (especially on the defensive side of the ball before this offseason), and the Bears appear poised to reap the benefits if they receive proper development under the tutelage of Matt Eberflus’ coaching staff.

If the Bears’ defense can repeat the same energy they displayed throughout the second half of last season, it will be difficult to keep them out of the Wild Card hunt, regardless of how well the offense performs.

At the same time, if they improve upon last year’s performance, there is no telling how good this team can be.

A top-five finish among virtually all categories (besides sacks) is well within the range of expectations if all goes as planned, and they have enough talent to challenge any defense in the league.

PHOTO: Getty Images

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