It all starts up front in the NFL, and the Chicago Bears are not immune to that reality.
Their run defense ranks fifth in the NFL in yards through seven-plus weeks. And, while opponents’ success through the air against them, part of that has been injuries but the front four has been a significant deterrence.
4 Bears Things to Watch vs Chargers: D-Line Keying Turnaround
1) Bears Defensive Front Coming Together
“Just playing as a team, playing together, jelling together,” said defensive tackle Gervon Dexter Sr. “I think that’s it.”
Dexter earned two of his three highest grades from Pro Football Focus in the last three weeks, both coming in Bears wins. But he is not alone as a young player manning a key role in this defense with fellow rookie Zacch Pickens also trying to find his way.
“Working together, staying consistent and, basically, our run fits,” Pickens said about the defensive line’s turnaround. Really, it’s the details for us. So key in on that, and trying to stay positive.”
Both players previously spoke with Clocker Sports about their biggest learning curves so far.
— Clocker Sports (@ClockerSports) October 26, 2023
Dexter said he could sense the difference in the defensive play calls since head coach Matt Eberflus took over. But he emphasized that the players have really just begun to execute the game plan more effectively.
“Even from the jump, that’s kind of how he called it,” Dexter said. “And we just now executing it, getting better at it.”
Pickens didn’t really sense the difference between Eberflus and his predecessor, Alan Williams.
“To me, it feel the same because we got the same calls,” Pickens said. “But what Coach is doing is doing amazing. Both of them was coaching well so I can’t say who’s better or not. But Coach has definitely been calling some good calls.”
But their development has been the underlying storyline that could have the greatest impact on the Bears’ future.
“Man them boys ain’t doing nothing,” Justin Jones joked. “Nah, I’m just playing. They’re playing pretty well. I just told Zacch today, I feel like he’s getting a lot better. I feel like last time I told you he was getting better, it was the first couple of games, it was some things he had to work on. But he was getting better. He’s taken really, really big strides.”
“I feel like G, I feel like he’s gonna be really, really, really good player one day. And I mean like really good,” Jones said. “I feel like, career-wise I feel like he’s gonna have a really really good career, and I feel like he’s taking those strides to be an elite player at some point.”
The Bears want their tackles to be able to play every position. But Dexter has mostly been Jones’ understudy since arriving.
“With him, he has a really mature mindset,” Jones said.
“When it comes to the game of football and learning the ins and outs, I feel like he has an open mind when it comes to that. And I feel like he takes information and brings it to the field within each practice. It’s not a couple things that you have to say to him too many times before it gets corrected. And that’s kind of very rare when you find rookies who can do that.”
Fellow veteran Andre Billings has been a huge part of the Bears’ run defense coming along as it has. He was also high on how the youngsters have come along and their approach to getting better.
“[They’re] developing into themselves,” Billings said. “They know what they’re good at and what they can do in the NFL. I think they’re working on that now.“
Pickens has been Billings’ understudy and said he leans on him as he works to improve.
“I’m just giving him confidence,” Billings said when asked his typical message for Pickens. “Right now we’re playing football so you just gotta go out there and be confident. You can mess up, just mess up fast and confidently, and it’ll all work out. So right now it’s just keeping him confident.”
Asked about his relationship with Jones, Billings noted they get together with another defensive lineman to hang out in their downtime.
He put me on some restaurants. [But] he got family to take care of, man. So I understand him,” Billings laughed. “We cool, hang out outside the building. Go over [DeMarcus Walker]’s house, chill. He put me on some restaurants downtown but I still ain’t been there. It’s no getting acclimated to that traffic.
“It always feels good overall. But we gotta put some more wins together, it’s gonna feel great. But the run defense, we’ve all been doing our jobs. And that’s been the key to any type of defense: everybody has to be on the same page and doing their jobs.”
2) Tyson Bagent vs. Justin Herbert
Undrafted free agent rookie Tyson Bagent gets his second career start on the road in prime time. And he will get to do it against one of the brighter talents at the position: Chargers’ quarterback Justin Herbert. It hasn’t been the typical season for Herbert. He and the Chargers are 2-4 while the passer is averaging the fewest passing yards of his career.
But after logging 4,000 passing yards in three straight seasons, a shootout is always possible if not likely given the Chargers’ trajectory over the last couple of weeks. Do the Bears think Bagent is ready for that?
“He’s thrown the ball 7,000 times [in his football career],” Eberflus said on Friday. “I think he’ll be okay.”
Bagent threw for just 162 yards on 29 attempts in his first start. But his air yards per attempt rose dramatically from 2.7 coming in cold in relief of Justin Fields in Week 6 to 6.3 in Week 7, per Pro Football Reference. That shows there is more trust in him to attack down the field with preparation but this matchup could present challenges to that.
3) Khalil Mack vs Bears OTs
For the first time since he was traded before the 2022 season, Chargers EDGE Khalil Mack will get to face off against the team he spent four seasons with. Mack racked up 36 sacks in his four somewhat injury-marred campaigns in Chicago, helping the Bears go 12-4 and reach the playoffs in 2018 with 12.5 quarterback sacks.
He had 15 sacks over his final two seasons, though one of those years was cut due to injury. In his one-plus seasons with the Chargers, Mack has 15.0 sacks including a six-sack effort in Week 4 versus the Las Vegas Raiders, another of his former teams.
That could be foreboding for a Bears offensive line still starting backup Larry Borom at left tackle and rookie Darnell Wright battling through a shoulder injury at right tackle.
And that doesn’t account for Joey Bosa, Morgan Fox, or any of their other pass rushers.
big bear + big mack pic.twitter.com/e6NFEUZSYA
— Los Angeles Chargers (@chargers) June 22, 2023
4) Doug Kramer Could be a Name to Watch Going Forward
The Bears drafted center Doug Kramer in the sixth round of the draft in 2022. He did not step foot on the field in an official capacity until last week versus Las Vegas.
Two of the players selected ahead of him by the Bears – lineman Zachary Thomas and running back Trestan Ebner – have both since been cut with Ebner even showing something in preseason first.
Bears brass clearly sees something in the former five-year starter at the University of Illinois.
“It definitely means a lot to me,” Kramer said after practice on Thursday. “But I think the biggest thing that I think about is just making the most out of that opportunity. They’re showing faith in me to get out there and play and keeping me around, and that means a lot. But it’s really down to me to make the most out of it.
It would have been easy to grow complacent during his recovery from a foot injury. But the youngster stayed active even if he couldn’t take part on the field.
“Just try to put myself into the game like the starter, and really treat each week like that,” Kramer said. “As far as you know you’re not gonna get the physical reps. But you can still look at everything mentally, and watch all the tape, and still prepare like you’re going to play.”
He got just two snaps in Week 7. But both came on offense and, with the Bears’ recent issues with snaps and their current trajectory, we could see him even more toward the end of the season. If so, Kramer cited his communication and effort first when asked what he brings to the field as a player.
“At the end of the day, I do it for the other four guys around me, and the quarterback, and my other teammates.”