Bears Mid-Season Report: D-Line

We evaluate the performance of the Chicago Bears defensive line through eight weeks, a unit that features an emerging star, an aging sack master, a contract-year standout and more.

In nearly every statistical category this year, the Chicago Bears defense has been middle of the pack.

The unit is 16th in overall defense, 13th in opposing rushing yards per game, 14th in interceptions, 17th in total takeaways and 14th in sacks. They’ve fallen below average in passing yards allowed per game (24th) and points allowed per contest (29th) but when you consider the historically bad output of the defense in 2013, these are significant statistical improvements.

This isn’t the type of defense that can carry a team into the postseason. That much is true. But this is a team built around the offense, so expecting more than mid-level production from the defense is setting the bar too high.

You can’t have a Top 10 defense when twice as much cap money has been spent on the offense.

The defense has struggled mightily at times. The Patriots posted 38 points in the first half in Week 8, the most points a Bears defense has allowed in the first half of any contest in franchise history. Understandably, that has left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, yet Chicago doesn’t have the worst defense in the league. They have an average to below-average group.

The revamped defensive line has shown the most improvement this season. They’ve been inconsistent for sure but the Bears haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher all year and are in the top half of the league in sacks.

Willie Young has been the club’s leading force in pass rush. He’s been one of the league leaders in sacks all season, picking up 7.0 sacks through the first six games. Young never had more than 3.0 sacks in any of his four previous NFL seasons, so his emergence – at just $3 million a year for the next three seasons – has been a big boost for a defense that ranked 32nd in the NFL in sacks in 2013.

Young has also shown well against the run. He uses his long arms to create and keep separation, and no player on the defense sheds blocks as well as him. As an all-around player, Young is arguably the best defender on the roster.

With Lamarr Houston done for the season due to a torn ACL, Young will slide into full-time duty at defensive end. That’s somewhat concerning. In 15 games as a starter for the Lions last year, he had just 3.0 sacks. And in the only game he started this season, Week 4 against the Packers, he failed to pick up a sack.

Young has proven well suited as a rotational player, allowing the Bears to limit his reps and keep him fresh on passing downs. He might see twice as many snaps going forward, which could limit his late-game effectiveness.

Speaking of Houston, he was a major disappointment after signing a five-year, $35 million deal this offseason. He had just 11 total tackles through eight games and his only sack came in the waning moments of the blowout loss to the Patriots, after which Houston jumped up and tore his ACL.

He made $9 million this year and is guaranteed more than $5 million next year. If he can’t regain form following the knee injury – ACL tears have destroyed the careers of numerous defensive linemen – and the Bears are forced to cut him, he’ll end up making $1.27 million for each of his 11 tackles.

Including Young, the Bears have three defensive linemen with 2.0 or more sacks. Three of those are defensive tackles: Stephen Paea (4.0), Jeremiah Ratliff (3.5) and Ego Ferguson (2.0).

Paea is in the final year of his rookie contract. He told me during OTAs he needs to have the best season of his career and so far, he’s on track to accomplish that goal. His previous single-season high in sacks was 2.5 in 2012 and he’s on pace for 8.0 sacks this year.

Yet while Paea has improved his pass-rush game, he has been very inconsistent against the run. He’s made a number of plays in the team’s new two-gap system but he’s also been blocked out of just as many run snaps. It’s obvious he’ll never be able to anchor in the same way as a 3-4 nose tackle but as a hybrid interior defender, Paea is picking up steam.

Ratliff missed three games due to a concussion but when on the field, he’s played at a very high level. Despite playing just five games, he leads the team's DTs with 21 tackles, while his eight QB hurries, per Pro Football Focus, are tied with Young.

Ratliff may be 33 but he’s shown this year he still has a lot left in the tank. If he can stay healthy the next eight games, he’ll continue to buoy the inside of the defensive line.

Ferguson has steadily improved the entire year. On top of his 2.0 sacks, he’s shown serious potential as a run-stopping nose tackle. When he’s rested and focused, Ferguson is nearly impossible to block. When his pad level stays low, he can use his immense strength and power to drive offensive linemen onto their heels. He needs to find consistency as a pass rusher and learn to keep his eyes in the backfield but Ferguson can be the club’s nose tackle of the future. If he continues to improve over the next eight weeks, he could make Paea expendable once free agency begins.

Ferguson has fared better than fellow rookie defensive tackle Will Sutton, who still doesn’t have a QB sack or a QB hit, despite being playing 248 snaps, 31 more than Ratliff. Billed as a penetrating 3-technique, Sutton hasn’t shown consistent burst off the ball or an ability to beat stout NFL guards. Sutton has made the occasional play against the run but he needs to start getting after the passer if he’s going to justify his status as a third-round draft pick.

No other defensive lineman on the team has played more than eight snaps, except for Jared Allen, who has 1.5 sacks through eight games. To say he’s underachieved is a dramatic understatement.

Allen is coming off a 2013 campaign that most considered a “down year”. While in recovery from offseason shoulder surgery, Allen still managed 11.5 sacks for the Vikings last year. Yet the 32-year-old has looked like a shell of his former self as a Bear.

Allen still has decent quickness and shows off veteran awareness and savvy, but he’s lost at least one step, if not two. He doesn’t have good burst off the ball and he has struggled to turn the corner. In addition, opposing offenses have routinely exploited him with the zone-read option.

Like Houston, it appears the Bears far overpaid (four years, $32 million) for Allen’s services. He dealt with pneumonia early in the year, which forced him to miss a game for the first time in six-plus years. It’s possible his body is still recovering from the illness and that he’ll emerge as the player he once was following the bye.

Yet if he doesn’t and Allen continues to do very little off the edge, the defense is going to struggle as well. A resurgence from Allen would go a long way toward helping the defense find consistency in the second half of the season.

With Houston done for the year, the team will likely turn to Trevor Scott to rotate as the No. 3 defensive end. Scott flashed at times during training camp yet has been mainly a special-teams player during the regular season, logging just eight defensive snaps in eight games. The seventh-year veteran could be a boost to the defensive line if his fresh legs can provide pressure off the edge.

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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.

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