Tailgater: Why Wasn't Bears' Defense Dominant?

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) -- During the course of this disappointing season, it became clear the Bears had lost their dominant defensive identity.

While that won't be the team's most pressing concern this offseason -- what to do with a beleaguered offense will be the focus -- the Bears do need to reassess why their defense was just good in 2019 instead of dominant as it was in 2018.

On the surface, the defense's numbers continue to be strong. The Bears have allowed 18.6 points per game, which ranks fifth in the NFL. But a year after leading the NFL with 36 takeaways, the Bears have only forced 16 turnovers in their 15 games, which is tied for 25th in the league. And the Bears' season finale against the Vikings on Sunday will bring an end to an unsatisfying season for the defense.

The Bears are in a takeaway drought, as they last forced a turnover in a win against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day, when Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson made his lone interception of the season -- on Detroit quarterback David Blough's fourth-and-22 heave on the Lions' last play of the game. After intercepting 27 passes in 2018, the Bears have picked off just eight this season.

"Every year is different," said defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who's in his first season in Chicago.

Pagano is ready to begin self-scouting for the first time since after the 2016 season, when he last returned to a job. He plans to dig into what could've been better for his defense.

The Bears have been hurt by injuries at key spots on defense, with none more impactful than the loss of defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who has played in just five games this season due to an elbow injury while also managing a knee issue. Hicks is a dominant dominant pass rusher who draws plenty of attention, which frees up other to make plays more easily. The season-ending injuries to inside linebackers Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith only further decimated the defense.

But there are also key aspects of the defense to re-evaluate for 2020. Star pass rusher Khalil Mack has only 8.5 sacks, which would mark his lowest total since 2014. The absence of Hicks played a part in Mack receiving more attention from foes, and so too has the lack of a complementary edge rusher opposite of him. Fellow outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, the No. 9 overall pick in 2016, has just three sacks this season.

Pagano must also address his usage of Jackson on the back end of his defense. While Jackson was thrilled to welcome a good friend in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to his side at safety, Pagano's utilization of the two hasn't been ideal. Jackson and Clinton-Dix are both natural free safeties, and one has been forced into the strong safety role at all times as they've switched between playing in coverage and dropping into the box.

After posting six interceptions last season, Jackson has just one in 2019. The Bears have 19 fewer picks and 20 fewer takeaways.

Could Pagano have done more to put players like Jackson in position to make more plays? How much did injuries impact his defensive calls? 

Pagano's self-scouting will be a big task this offseason. At the root of his research will be figuring why the Bears didn't have a dominant defense.

"We’ll look at everything A to Z," Pagano said. 

Open field

Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky will watch the playoffs like he always has. The disappointment of his team's season won't keep him from the television.

The 25-year-old Trubisky was once a kid in Mentor, Ohio who idolized the game's great quarterbacks. Several of them will be playing this postseason, such as the Saints' Drew Brees and the Patriots' Tom Brady. For Trubisky, watching those players will serve as a reminder for what he still strives to be.

Trubisky is looking forward to the offseason, which will allow him to move on from the failures of the Bears and reset himself for the future. 

"I got a lot of personal drive and fire within me that I know I haven't played to my potential yet," Trubisky said. "I think that's frustrating, but it's also something that motivates me a lot."

The Bears will likely give Trubisky a clean path to being the team's starting quarterback again in 2020, making it known publicly in recent weeks that the struggles of the offense were much more collective than just on the quarterback.

Bears coach Matt Nagy needs to oversee the overhaul of an offense that has averaged just 4.7 yards per play this season, which ranks second-to-last in the NFL. General manager Ryan Pace needs to restock the offense with the personnel that's needed to improve.

As for Trubisky, his offseason goal will be to look inward. The Bears have done their part in managing Trubisky's waning confidence throughout the season, but they can only do so much.

Trubisky must do his part to elevate himself to where the Bears believe he can be.

"He's going to be hungry to do everything he can to get better," Nagy said.

Trubisky isn't certain of his offseason plan just yet. He doesn't believe surgery will be required for his non-throwing shoulder, which he injured in late September. The preliminary plan for Trubisky will be staying at his home near the Bears' facility and keeping his focus on the organization. 

After a difficult season, Trubisky will try to shut himself down, but there's also the competitor inside who's ready to respond.

"I haven’t played the way I wanted to play in a lot of these games," Trubisky said. "And that’s frustrating.”

4-down territory
1.) Steady with Eddy?

It seems like ages ago that the Bears' greatest concern was the kicking position. With a pivotal offseason approaching, the kicker isn't at the top of Pace's priority list.

The Bears stand confident in Eddy Pineiro as their kicker for 2020 and beyond, Nagy said this week.

 "Hopefully when we reflect at the year’s end, we all feel good about where we’re at with him," Nagy said. "And we feel like that we’ve found an answer there with him. I’m proud of him for that.

"I feel like we’re in a good place with him. I like what he has done all year long. I think moving forward here, going into it, I think we know who he is and what we have."

Pineiro was named the Bears' kicker in September after winning out in a long offseason competition. He has converted 19-of-24 field-goal attempts and is 24-of-26 on extra-point attempts. Though there have been times the Bears haven't shown trust in Pineiro, the team has stood behind his development.

Bears special teams coordinator Chris Tabor has recognized the progress Pineiro has made since arriving in a trade with the Raiders in May.

"He’s grown immensely," Tabor said. "You go all the way back to OTAs, looking at some of that tape, to where the product is right now, just with regards to his routine, how he hits the ball, how he follows through, the trajectory -- there are a lot of things that he’s improved at. And the thing that I’m still excited about, because he is a young player, he can still grow, and I see that in him."

2.) Ch-ch-ch-changes?

Who's to blame for the Bears' offensive struggles?

The simple answers would be Nagy and/or Trubisky, but it's unlikely either will be leaving the Bears after this season. What seems more probable is that changes are coming to the Bears' offensive coaching staff.

The Bears could have minor changes or perhaps overhaul it altogether. Bears offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich understands that's a possibility, and he stands the most likely to be dismissed.

"You're in this business, stuff happens," Helfrich said of staff changes. "That's a possibility."

Every member of Nagy's offensive staff could be in jeopardy of being dismissed, with no position group playing to its potential. Even a respected assistant like offensive line coach Harry Hiestand may not be entirely safe as Nagy assesses his coaching staff.

There could be difficult decisions ahead for Nagy and the Bears as they begin their offseason.

3.) Big void

There was no denying the significance of defensive lineman Akiem Hicks' absence for much of this season. A 2018 Pro Bowl selection, Hicks played in just five games while missing nine due to an elbow injury and one with a knee issue. He'll also miss the season finale Sunday.

Without Hicks, the defense lost a large part of its tenacity and others on the defensive front struggled to showcase their best form.

"Not only his play on the field, but his leadership, his enthusiasm, his love for the game," Pagano said. "I mean, the guy is a big, big man, and he can wreak havoc in there and he commands double teams. 

"He’s a game-wrecker. He’s one of the top defensive linemen in this league. So, it hurts you when you lose guys like that."

4.) 'Pride'

The Bears have no stakes to play for Sunday, and neither do the Vikings, who will be the sixth seed in the NFC in the playoff regardless of their outcome this weekend.

For a Bears team that has underachieved, how does Nagy keep the focus of his group for one last game week? 

"That's the biggest thing is just letting them understand this is pride, and we're going there to win," Nagy said.

5.) Fifth Down for a Good Guy

The Chicago chapter of the Pro Football Writers America named Allen Robinson as the Bears' Good Guy Award winner on Thursday, recognizing his professionalism with the media this season.

Accountability is a difficult thing during a disappointing season, but Robinson was always there to provide insight and speak on behalf of his team. 

It's worth noting Trubisky was the runner-up in the voting. He has been honest with his shortcomings this season, and often taken a beating for it.

Quote to note:

"We got to be better in all three phases." 

-- Nagy, stating the obvious

Injury report

DL Akiem Hicks (elbow) -- After returning on Dec. 15, Hicks was ruled out for the rest of the season once the Bears were eliminated from playoff contention. There's no sense in him risking greater injury to his ailing elbow.

CB Prince Amukamara (hamstring) -- The lingering hamstring issue for Amukamara has hampered his play and forced the Bears to rotate in Kevin Toliver. The Bears face a decision on Amukamara's future this offseason, as he has no guaranteed money remaining on that contract. That might lead them to start Toliver on Sunday to get a better assessment of his play.

DL Eddie Goldman (concussion) -- Barring a late development, the Bears will be playing without two of their starting defensive linemen.

WR Taylor Gabriel (concussion) -- Here's hoping the best for Gabriel, who has been dealing with his second concussion of the season for nearly two months.

OT Bobby Massie (ankle) -- It's likely Massie's season is over, as he hasn't yet returned to practice since suffering the ankle sprain on Nov. 17.

Prediction (11-4): Vikings 17, Bears 14

A lost season in Chicago will be marked by a losing record, with the Bears falling to 7-9 with a road loss to the Vikings.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.