The Chicago Bears defense took a substantial step forward in 2015. Compared to 2014, the unit improved from 30th to 14th overall, 30th to 20th in points allowed and 30th to 4th against the pass.
Yet the defense regressed defending the run, dropping from 17th to 22nd in the NFL. Run defense requires a team effort but Chicago's defensive line deserves a large share of the blame.
While the unit's peformance wasn't ideal, injuries and one lunatic took their toll on the club's defensive line.
With that in mind, let's break down the performance of each Bears defensive lineman last season.
In his first three years in the NFL with the Washington Redskins, Jenkins accumulated 2.0 sacks. In 15 games with the Bears, he doubled his career sack total, finishing the campaign with 4.0 sacks.
Jenkins' emergence as a pass rusher was surprising but the numbers are a bit misleading. Between Weeks 3-6, Jenkins accumulated 3.5 of his 4.0 total sacks. In the 11 other contests, he totaled just 0.5 sacks. He also struggled to find consistency as a run defender.
Jenkins led all Bears defensive linemen with 32 total tackles and 25 QB hurries, and he's a solid veteran leader in Chicago's locker room, which has value, but his overall play was average at best. He was signed to just a one-year deal last year and I'll be surprised if he's re-signed to a long-term contract this upcoming off-season.
The team's second-round draft pick, Goldman played better than most expected his rookie season. At 6-3, 332 pounds, most predicted Goldman to be a pure space-eating nose tackle who would have little value on passing downs.
Against the run, Goldman did not disappoint, as he proved adept at two-gapping and filling interior running lanes. He also showed the ability to disengage from blocks and led all Bears defensive linemen with 21 Run Stops (per Pro Football Focus).
Yet Goldman also emerged as a viable pass rusher. He finished with 18 QB hurries, second most among defensive linemen and only three less than the team's sack leader, Lamarr Houston, and 4.5 sacks. Goldman easily translates momentum into power and his bull rush is tough to stop once he gains leverage.
He was placed on IR due to a back injury in Week 17 and missed the final contest of the campaign, but he was relatively healthy otherwise.
He needs to be more consistent on game days but Goldman's future is very bright as the centerpiece of Chicago's defensive line.
Sutton added weight last off-season and looked and played more like a 5-technique than a 3-technique down lineman. He made some splash plays as a run defender, showing good ability to shed blocks and track ball carriers.
Overall though, Sutton was highly inconsistent as a run defender and could not hold the point of attack against double teams. Also, we're still waiting for Sutton's first sack in the NFL. In fact, despite playing 428 snaps - 3rd most among defensive linemen - he accumulated just 6 QB hurries. He batted down 4 passes, which led the team, but Sutton has been basically invisible on passing downs the past two years.
In reality, Sutton is little more than an average, one-dimensional player who disappears on passing downs. The team's former third-round pick will obviously be invited to training camp next year but don't be surprised if he ends up on the chopping block, as he just hasn't produced at a high level.
After spending three years in Denver, Unrein signed with the Chargers to start last season but was waived two weeks into the regular season. The Bears swooped in and signed Unrein, who played three years under John Fox with the Broncos.
Unrein played 14 games in Chicago and had the third most snaps among defensive linemen (428). He picked up his first career sack in Week 14 against the Redskins and was stout against the run the entire campaign.
Not only that, but Unrein also served as the club's goal line fullback, playing seven snaps as a lead blocker near the end zone, with positive results.
Unrein is a solid 5-technique defensive end who fills gaps consistently and also has the quickness to penetrate into the backfield. Looking back, Unrein was easily the best mid-season acquisition GM Ryan Pace made all year, which should earn him at least one more year with the Bears in 2016.
Ferguson played very well as the club's most versatile defensive lineman early in the season, excelling as a run defender at both nose tackle and defensive end. Yet he was felled by a knee injury in Week 4 and the Bears placed him on injured reserve for the final 12 games of the campaign.
The team's 2014 second-round pick, Ferguson can be a quality piece to the puzzle for defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. If he stays healthy, Ferguson should continue to improve as a 3-4 defender next season and beyond.
The Bears signed Gaston off Green Bay's practice squad after Ferguson was injured. Gaston played 168 total snaps, fifth most among the defensive linemen, accumulating 11 total tackles and 1.0 sack.
He's not a flashy player but Gaston has decent value against the run and as a pass rusher. He deserves an invite to training camp next season.
In the final week of the 2014 season, Ratliff got into a fight during practice. Former head coach Marc Trestman not only didn't discipline Ratliff but he made him a captain for the season finale.
Fast forward to Bourbonnais, where Ratliff was a ticking timebomb throughout training camp. His rage-filled camp culminated in a wicked sucker punch to Will Montgomery, which likely would have put Montgomery in the hospital had he not been wearing a helmet. Practice actually stopped for nearly 10 minutes because Ratliff refused to calm down, which forced Fox to step in and diffuse the situation. It was a harbinger of things to come.
Ratliff was injured for all but two games through the first six weeks of the season. Then, in Week 7, he showed up to practice under the influence and refused to leave Halas Hall, which forced management to call the Lake Forest police. Ratliff made numerous threats during his meltdown before finally being escoreted off the property. He was cut the next day and no one has heard from him since.
The Bears signed Hood the same day they cut Ratliff. The six-year veteran didn't pan out though and, after playing just 38 snaps, he was cut three weeks later.
The Bears have two foundation pieces for the defensive line with Goldman and Ferguson. If those two can stay healthy, Chicago's front line should continue to improve. Both players can occupy blockers, while Goldman has value on passing downs as well.
Unrein deserves another short-term deal as well. He's not flashy but Unrein is stout and does the little things well, while also providing value as a lead blocker on offense.
Yet Sutton, Jenkins and Gaston, and even late-season signee D'Anthony Smith, are all "just guys". Don't be surprised if Pace adds another veteran defensive end this off-season, as well as a youngster in the 2016 NFL Draft.
If the team can find one more impact player, one who provides some explosiveness on passing downs, the Bears' defensive line should be in good shape going forward.null