Hardly anyone is taking the Chicago Bears seriously. At 5-1, the Bears are in a surprisingly strong position to reach the playoffs despite benching their starting quarterbacks three weeks into the season. But Chicago has managed the switch from 2017 no. 2 pick Mitchell Trubisky to veteran free-agent signee Nick Foles well enough, and now are in position to defy the premonitions of experts and fans alike.
“It’s not that fantasy world that everybody wants on offense,” coach Matt Nagy told reporters Monday, assessing his team’s lackluster performance on that side of the ball. “It’s not that. What it is, is it’s winning. It’s winning football. That’s pretty cool when you think about it.”
“Heartstopping” might be a more apt description. Each of the Bears’ games thus far have been decided by one score, suggesting that they’ve been pretty fortunate. By most statistical measures, they have. Chicago’s 21.3 points per game rank 27th in the league. The Bears’ offense ranks 28th in total yards, 26th in first downs, 23rd in passing yards, 27th in net yards per attempt, 28th in rushing yards, and 25th in yards per attempt. The transition from Trubisky to Foles did nothing to get the offense on track, either. Foles has completed just 62.5 percent of his passes, averaged 5.8 yards per attempt, and has a QBR of 49.9 (27th among qualified passers). None of that is encouraging. It’s part of the reason the Bears rank among the worst 5-1 teams ever recorded by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metrics since 1985.
Since I've been asked, nope, the Chicago Bears are not the worst 5-1 team in DVOA history or even one of the five worst. In fact, the worst 5-1 team in DVOA history was... last year's Buffalo Bills! pic.twitter.com/ZITbONhRwH— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) October 19, 2020
However, for all of the Bears’ shortcomings, they’re not just lucky. Chicago’s defense is one of the NFL’s best units, allowing just 19.3 points per game (seventh), while boasting strong marks in total defense (seventh), opponent yards per play (tied for fifth), and first downs allowed (10th). The Bears have held opposing passers to a 73.5 average passer rating (second lowest), have generated 15 sacks (tied for 10th most), and allowed 4.3 yards per carry (tied for 14th).
Chicago’s defensive dominance begins up front. Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks is one of the league’s underrated players, having generated 3.5 sacks, six tackles for loss, and 10 QB hits thus far. Edge rusher Khalil Mack (4.5 sacks, six TFLs, eight QB hits) is capable of playing at an All-Pro level, and the Bears enlisted former All-Pro Robert Quinn to play opposite him. Brent Urban, Barkevious Mingo, and Mario Edwards Jr. have also contributed up front. Although inside linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan have not played at high levels to this point, the front seven has been solid.
The Bears’ talented secondary has played a role in the front unit’s success. One-time All-Pro Kyle Fuller has played at a top level, allowing a 46.2 percent completion percentage when targeted and just 5 yards per target, according to Pro Football Reference. Throughout the year, he’s also proved to be a physical presence around the line of scrimmage.
Across from Fuller, the Bears have been energized by the development of rookie Jaylon Johnson. Opposing passers have not been shy to target the second-round corner out of Utah, and he’s certainly made some rookie mistakes. But six games into his NFL career, he’s limited opposing passers to a 46.7 completion rate and leads all rookies with nine forced incompletions, per Pro Football Focus. The back end of the secondary, as expected, has also played at a high level. Safety Eddie Jackson—who signed a four-year, $58 million deal this past offseason—has lived up to his billing, showing off typical playmaking skills and forcing a fumble this year. Veteran safety Tashaun Gipson has looked solid opposite him, with two picks under his belt. The Bears are allowing opposing passers to a league-low 57.1 completion percentage and just 6.6 yards per attempt (tied for third lowest). They are one of three defensive units (along with the Colts and the Buccaneers) to have registered more interceptions (five) than passing touchdowns allowed (four).
The Bears defense ranks fifth in DVOA through six weeks, making up for an offense which ranks 26th in the metric. So far, that’s been enough to eke out wins. The issue is whether or not that will be a sustainable winning formula against competent opponents—four of the Bears’ five wins have come against teams who are .500 or worse: the Lions, Giants, Falcons, and Panthers. Chicago did, however, come away with a résumé-building win against the Buccaneers, who would have had a chance at flipping the result had Tom Brady not forgotten what down it was during Tampa Bay’s final possession. (Again, there’s definitely been some luck contributing to the Bears’ success.)
Chicago’s victory against one of the best teams in football emphasized what the club’s strengths are. The Bears’ talented front seven harassed Brady all evening, their secondary was stout (albeit against a depleted Bucs receiving corps in that matchup), and they got just enough from Foles to see the victory all the way through. The Bears have the ability to limit high-powered units and generate turnovers to set up their own offense with shorter fields. Chicago’s average starting field position of its own 31.8 yard line ranks fifth in the NFL.
Within the NFC North, the Bears’ defense could prove enough to propel the team into the postseason. Just last week, the Bucs shut down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, who entered the game boasting one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses. It’s an encouraging sign for Chicago, which is now ahead of Green Bay atop the division standings. The rest of the division doesn’t appear to pose much of a fight. The Vikings have fallen apart as Kirk Cousins and the offense continue to struggle. Chicago’s defense should have a field day in their two upcoming meetings. Meanwhile, the Lions are not completely out of the playoff race, and head coach Matt Patricia is reportedly coaching for his job. The Bears have already shown they can beat Detroit after ripping off 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter behind former starter Trubisky in Week 1.
There’s precedent for top-flight defenses carrying below-average offenses to the playoffs. Last season, the Bills ranked 21st in offensive DVOA and seventh in defensive DVOA, but still reached the wild-card round. In 2014, the Cardinals reached the wild-card round after ranking 23rd in offensive DVOA and seventh in defensive DVOA. Of the eight 5-1 teams to ever start the year lower in team DVOA than this season’s Bears, only two (1987 Chargers, 2015 Falcons) failed to make the postseason. On one side of the ball, Chicago looks like it should be tanking for Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. But on the other side, the Bears look like a contender. Combined with a top-heavy division and relatively easy schedule (remaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of 50 percent), Chicago is favored to sneak in. The next few weeks will be telling as to whether or not the Bears are as legitimate as their record suggests, though. Their next three opponents—the Rams, Saints, and Titans—are likely playoff teams this year.
This week, Chicago faces Los Angeles, which boasts the NFL’s fifth-ranked offense in DVOA, including the metric’s no. 1 rushing unit. The Rams, coming off a sobering loss against the 49ers, have the makings of a playoff team, and they could potentially directly compete with the Bears for seeding should both teams continue to win games. Regardless, whether Chicago is real or not may not matter. Not as long its defense continues carrying it, at least.
“We know that across the board on offense right now, there’s different things that we can get better at,” Nagy said. “That’s everybody, myself included. … I saw [Sunday] what Nick [Foles] said about ‘Would you rather win ugly or lose pretty?’ And I think that kinda sums it up there.”