Looking at the stat sheet, this Chicago Bears defense is arguably the best in the league.
They’re first in the league against the run (80.0 yards per game), first in the league against opponent quarterback rating (72.9), lead in takeaways (36), and in touchdown efficiency (opponents reached the end zone on just 14.8 percent of their drives). They posted 50 sacks this year (third in the NFL) and posted a 34.2 percent third-down conversion rate (fourth in the NFL). Guess what? The film backs that up, and it all starts with Khalil Mack.
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Khalil Mack can beat offensive linemen in a multitude of ways. He can win with speed. He can win with power. He can win with technique. He can win with effort. He’s excellent on stunts and twists up front. He’s one of the toughest guys to block in the league regardless of position. Mack single-handedly presents the biggest challenge in Sunday’s game for this Eagles team, and his presence has had a huge impact on that entire side of the ball for Chicago.
So now the question needs to be asked, what can the Eagles do to negate Mack’s effectiveness? So many buzzwords get thrown around with this topic. Double teams. Slide protection. Chip blocks. What do they all mean? Amy Campbell and I detailed the different protection schemes that the Eagles will utilize on Sunday in this week’s Eagle Eye in the Sky breakdown.
When the Eagles do decide to slide protection toward Mack, the battle isn’t over. The Bears have other rushers on that defensive front who can win one-on-one matchups. Offenses have tried to take Mack out of games all year long. He can beat slide protections and deal with extra attention, plus his presence also helps create favorable opportunities for others around him.
As Amy and I discussed above, there are two sides to every protection scheme – a zone side and a man side. When defenders are left one-on-one in man protection, that’s where they can either try and win those matchups on their own or are susceptible to giving up pressure on stunts and twists, like the ones you see above. Who are those guys that continue to find ways to win one-on-one? That would be third-year outside linebacker Leonard Floyd and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks.
Floyd is much more than a pass rusher for Chicago. He’s also a pretty stout run defender and an effective coverage player for that defense. He’s a dynamic athlete who can make an impact getting after the quarterback and is a threat to run the arc or win with one of those spin moves at any point. Hicks likely belongs right in that "elite" status of defensive tackles alongside Fletcher Cox. If he’s not, he’s in the rung right below. This guy wins with quickness, power, technique, and aggressiveness. He’s a force inside for this team who has presented opposing offensive lines with problems all season long.
With those three guys up front, the Eagles will have their hands full. On passing downs, the Bears like to line up Mack to one side with both Hicks and Floyd on the other, forcing teams to pick their poison from a resource standpoint in protection. Which way do you slide your help? On base downs, however, don’t be surprised to see all three of these guys lined up on the same side, where they all work really well together in the run game.
Mack is so stout at the point of attack, as is Hicks. Both guys are very active with their hands and they are almost always present in their gaps in the run fit. That forces running backs to have to bounce runs outside to prevent running into a brick wall. That’s where Floyd comes into play. Not only does he do a great job of using his length to lock out blockers and hold the edge, but he’s also a great athlete with the range to make plays outside the numbers tracking ballcarriers down from behind. Mack, Hicks, and Floyd are all big reasons why this is the best run defense, statistically, in the NFL.
The rest of this Chicago front is very talented as well. It’s a deep group, a skilled group, and one that has been wreaking havoc all season long.
The three guys I spotlighted here are Eddie Goldman, Jonathan Bullard, and Roy Robertson-Harris. I left off guys like Bilal Nichols, Aaron Lynch, along with Isaiah Irving. The Eagles' offensive line against the Bears' defensive front is arguably the biggest matchup in this game.
With the versatility they have off the edge with their starters, Mack and Floyd, the Bears are certainly confident in matching those guys up in space. For that reason, you’ll often see them stay in their base package, even against 11 personnel with three receivers on the field.
When the defense does this against three-receiver sets, that means two things. First, Floyd and/or Mack have to drop in coverage while lined up over a receiver in the slot. Second, it likely means they’re playing in some form of zone coverage. The Bears haven’t been killed on these looks this season, but that could certainly be an area where the Eagles could attack this weekend.
Let’s divert our attention to the back end of that Bears defense, starting with linebacker Roquan Smith. Chicago took him in the first round of the 2018 draft, and he’s been everything they hoped he’d be in the middle of that defense.
Smith is an aggressive run defender and a smart coverage player. His athleticism allows him to make plays up and down the field from sideline to sideline. Starting next to veteran Danny Trevathan, Smith is a dynamic player who should be an impact player for the Bears for a long time.
In the secondary, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s scheme utilizes "pattern match" zone coverage concepts to keep receivers locked down at all levels of the field. Pattern matching can be confusing for a quarterback because at the snap it'll look like man coverage, but it's still zone with the areas of coverage tightly defined by the routes instead of broad areas. Something that shows up across the board in this Bears secondary is the ability to read routes and break on throws early. The cornerback pair, Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, are very good at this, and the safety duo, Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos, show the ability to do it as well.
Jackson’s status is up in the air for Sunday due to an ankle injury, and he’d be a big loss for them if he were unable to go. Another young, versatile safety in Deon Bush is waiting in the wings if that's the case.
All this being said, this is a very, very talented defense in Chicago. They’re coached extremely well by Fangio. They stop the run well, they cover well, and they rush the passer well. The Eagles have to go into the Windy City and try to stick to the game plan, do what they do best and do what they feel most comfortable doing. It will be imperative to not get behind the chains against this group. Try to avoid as many third-and-longs as possible against Mack, Hicks, and that front. There are matchups to be won, but Nick Foles must have time to deliver down the field if they’re going to move the football. The offensive line has to be up to the challenge if the Eagles want to advance to the next round of the playoffs.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices, and opponents.