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Bears defense continuing to perform at high level

“Definitely we want to play with an edge. We want to compete with an edge. We want to compete like we’re the best unit on the field … " Bears DC Eric Washington

During the first three OTA practices this week at Halas Hall, the Bears defense has displayed the same take-no-prisoners mentality that fueled the unit's impressive resurgence in 2023.

"I think that is just part of their DNA," said first-year defensive coordinator Eric Washington. "Definitely we want to play with an edge. We want to compete with an edge. We want to compete like we're the best unit on the field, and that's something you have to back up with how you play, how you study, how you invest, and I really like the spirit, like the attitude out there."

Last season the Bears defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL against the run after finishing 31st the previous year and increased its interception total from 14 to 22, tied for the most in the league. The improvement was keyed by the midseason acquisition of defensive end Montez Sweat and the emergence of a talented young secondary.

Coach Matt Eberflus is confident that the defense will pick up this year where it left off during the second half of last season when the Bears generated 18 takeaways in a six-game span and won five of their final eight games after a 2-7 start.

"Our defense played well down the stretch," Eberflus said. "We all know that. We anticipate them coming off to a fast start. We certainly want to have that. The guys are excited about putting the work in to get that done. Nothing's guaranteed in this league and you've got to put the work in. Success travels through the company of very hard work and we have to get that done."

Veteran safety Kevin Byard III, who signed with the Bears in March, is thrilled to join a defense that features Pro Bowlers Sweat and cornerback Jaylon Johnson, tackles Gervon Dexter Sr. and Zacch Pickens, linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards, cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, safety Jaquan Brisker and nickel back Kyler Gordon.

"When you look at the talent that's on paper, it's exciting to see," Byard said. "But we've got to put it together. What's on paper doesn't really matter. We've just got to continue to work every single day to make each other better.

"And as we get closer to training camp, making sure that once we leave here, after minicamp and everything, guys are continuing to work, making sure that we come in so that we can hit the ground running when training camp starts."

Take a look at the Bears hitting the Halas Hall practice fields during the first week of Organized Team Activities.

Operating Eberflus' system for a third straight year, the defense should be able to hit the ground running.

"We're expecting to be a top defense," Byard said. "Anything less than that is a letdown. And also just knowing full well that with having a younger quarterback, we have to get off to a fast start … We've got to make sure we're a top defense. That's what we expect, and we talk about that every single day."

The last time Washington spoke to the media May 15 during rookie minicamp, he described the back seven as "as good a group as there is in the NFL." He delivered more praise Thursday, beginning with the front four.

"I'm really excited about what the defensive line is doing," Washington said. "I see revised and refined pass rush fundamentals and I just see a group that is really working together right now, that has a lot of energy, that they're developing the attitude that we are going to need going into the season."

Off to a good start this spring, the defense excelled during Thursday's OTA practice.

"I mean, we had a good day," Byard said. "But to be honest, it's to be expected. [When] you have a returning top-10 defense obviously going against a younger rookie quarterback who's getting acclimated and learning things, that's what it is supposed to look like. But we're out there competing and we're trying to make each other better and it's going to be about putting in the work that makes us better in the long run."