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Bears defense has made marked improvement in key areas

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After a slow start to the season, the Bears defense has made significant strides since October. The same unit that permitted 34.3 points and 383.3 yards over its first four games has held opponents to 19.9 points and 286.1 yards over its last eight contests.

Key areas of improvement include generating takeaways, pressuring the quarterback, stopping the run and getting off the field on third down.

After producing nine takeaways in the first 10 games, the Bears have forced eight turnovers in their last two contests, including seven interceptions.

"The rush and coverage kind of work hand-in-hand," said safeties coach Andre Curtis. "We've been pressuring the quarterback at a high rate with not blitz but four-man rushes that increase pressure, which is always good. The better you rush them, the tighter you cover them, usually you put yourself in good positions for things to happen. And the guys have been in good positions to capitalize on them."

Six different players have registered interceptions in the last two games: Linebacker T.J. Edwards has two and middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and defensive backs Tyrique Stevenson, Jaylon Johnson, Jaquan Brisker and Kyler Gordon have one apiece.

"It's just being mindful of it," said cornerbacks coach/defensive passing game coordinator Jon Hoke. "We've been able to affect the passer a little bit more and that's been helpful. And just guys having good anticipation, being in the right spot at the right time, playing the coverage well, understanding where things are happening, all those are factors in it."

The connection between rush and coverage has been evident. In their last three games, the Bears have recorded three of their four most quarterback pressures this season—with 16 against the Vikings Nov. 27, 11 versus the Panthers Nov. 9 and eight against the Lions Nov. 19.

The resurgence of the run defense has been equally impressive. The Bears have skyrocketed from 18th against the run following Week 4 to No. 1 in the NFL, holding opponents to an average of just 79.0 yards per game. Beginning in Week 5, the run defense has permitted 29, 46, 39, 54, 87, 43, 115 and 73 yards. 

"We play the run a certain way," said defensive line coach Travis Smith. "It starts with edge-setting, and it starts with guys playing stout and physical inside."

The Bears were back on the practice fields at Halas Hall to continue their preparation for Sunday's NFC North battle with the Lions at Soldier Field.

Stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback has helped the defense get off the field on third down with more regularity. After allowing opponents to convert 58.9% of third downs in the first four games, the Bears have yielded a conversion rate of 38.5% in their last eight contests.

Factors responsible for the defense's resurgence include increased continuity, the arrival of defensive end Montez Sweat and coach Matt Eberflus' play-calling.

The defense struggled out of the gate after key players such as Edmunds, Brisker, defensive end DeMarcus Walker, safety Eddie Jackson and cornerback Terell Smith missed all or most of training camp with injuries. Gordon later sat out four games after breaking his hand in the season opener against the Packers.

"First couple of games and a new scheme and things like that, you're still trying to get your feet wet, and I think you can say that for a lot of our guys," Edwards said. "But I think just the general rise of our team is guys just going out there and just putting it on the line, man. There's no holding back anything."

"The chemistry we're building every single week, every single day, you can tell it's paying off," Brisker said. "Guys [are] believing in that, believing in what coach is saying, but we're believing in each other also. And now that the turnovers are coming, guys are even more believing and want to be ball hungry and want to win. Guys are tired of losing, so we're trying to figure out some way, somehow."

The defense received a major boost Oct. 31 when the Bears acquired Sweat in a trade with the Commanders. The talented defensive end has helped bolster a pass rush that has recorded seven sacks in the last three games after mustering eight sacks in the first nine contests of the season.

Since his arrival, Sweat leads the Bears with 2.5 sacks and six quarterback hits and has also created more opportunities for his teammates.

"I mean he's everything you thought he was," Edwards said. "I've seen him for four years before this and I already knew what type of player he is and dynamic piece he brings, but honestly, I think having him, having the offense just kind of have to maybe lean some more things towards him, it's helping our whole unit."

Eberflus has described Sweat's presence on the field as the "Tez Effect."

"It allows you to play more coverage," Eberflus said. "And then when you do pressure, it certainly adds that effect to it. We certainly like where that is being able to have different coverages, different variations, to be able to mix those variations up. And that makes it harder for the quarterback."

Another factor in the defense's ascension has been Eberflus' play-calling, a responsibility he assumed early in the season. Prior to joining the Bears, Eberflus spent the previous four seasons as Colts defensive coordinator.

"He's really good at it," Hoke said. "He's very detailed at it. I know he watches massive amounts of tape. He goes back and he finds situational football, based on field position. He's done a really good job how he calls it and why he calls it the way he does, and he does a good job communicating to the players how he's going to call it as well."

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