The Bears currently rank No. 2 in the NFL in total defense – first against the run, ninth against the pass, first in sack percentage, first in interception percentage, seventh on third down and second in fewest points allowed.
Obviously, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s group is very, very good, but could this be a product of the early schedule, or is the Bears’ defense for real?
The Bears’ first four opponents – Green Bay, Seattle, Arizona and Tampa Bay – rank 10th, 27th, 32nd and second, respectively, in total offense.
Of course, Arizona was a laydown, but the other three were real challenges.
That said, Fangio thinks they can be better.
“Well, we can always improve,” he said. “Although we’ve played well, we haven’t been perfect by any stretch. So we just got to keep striving to be our best.”
The NFC’s reigning Defensive Player of the Month, Khalil Mack, thinks the biggest effect on the Bears’ performance so far and their ability to continue to improve mostly is about learning to play together.
“It’s not just the Bucs win, but it’s been stacking wins up over four weeks,” he said. “But it comes with playing the game. It’s hard to explain.”
Fangio, however, isn’t having any trouble spelling it out.
“I don’t think it’s surprising. I think it’s a by-product of winning some games,” he said. “By-product of having some good veterans here. And they’re veterans that are kind of in the middle of their career, not at the end of their career, but yet they’re smart enough to know – and experienced enough to know – that wins aren’t to be taken for granted, and just because you’re in a decent spot right now doesn’t mean you’re going to be in a decent spot next week.
“We live in a seven-day cycle here in the NFL, and those guys know that.”
Akiem Hicks arguably is the defense’s most vocal leader, and he appears to be buying in to Fangio’s message.
“I believe that we have a great group of veteran guys,” Hicks said, “such as Danny Trevathan and Khalil Mack coming in and Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara.
“We have been tagged as a young team, but we’ve got some veterans around here that know how to win and have done it before.”
It’s becoming clear from regularly being around these players that making sure they stay hungry and that the younger guys on team who still haven’t approached their ceilings continue getting more and more reps are the keys to staying on top and continuing to improve.
Fangio explained how he sees that latter process working with first-round pick Roquan Smith.
“Just playing,” Fangio said. “The more you play, the more comfortable you get, you see more things. So the next time you see something, maybe it’s not a first time.
“Just playing will make you better.”
Mack said all of his teammates understand the hunger issue.
“Absolutely. That’s what you need,” Mack said. “We’re in a good spot, but you have to keep looking forward. That’s what you need from the veterans on this team.”
Trevathan is another one of the veteran leaders and stars of the Bears “D,” and like Fangio, Mack and Hicks, he’s convinced this group understands what it takes to be great.
“That’s everywhere, amongst ourselves,” Trevathan said. “It’s just the people that we have here. We have people that know what it takes. The young guys are buying in.
“Like I said, we talked about it earlier, me and a few guys, Akiem, we just sit down and talked about how can we keep moving forward like this way, staying hungry and just keep pushing one another and not being complacent like coach says.
“That’s our whole thing – not getting complacent, staying hungry. It’s a long season.”
In addition to Smith, Eddie Goldman, Roy Robertson-Harris, Bilal Nichols, Leonard Floyd and Eddie Jackson are among the youngsters who still haven’t approached the ceilings they appear to have as football players.
Too many players and teams never reach their ceilings in the NFL, but the way the Bears are playing right now, and with the kids who still are learning and the veterans leading them, this group certainly has a chance to be special.
• Hub Arkush is executive editor of Pro Football Weekly. Write to him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @Hub_Arkush.