There are two stories one could tell about the Bears defense Sunday against the Saints.
The first would argue that the unit gave up 26 points, tied for a season-high, along with 394 total yards, the highest number since Week 1. The Bears lost in overtime, 26-23, and that should be the only data point that matters.
The second would counter that the defense once again mostly held firm in the red zone, kept the game close and put the Bears within reach of one of the league's most successful franchises over the last decade.
In his remarks to the media after the loss, coach Matt Nagy seemed to favor the latter story.
"There were a few plays here and there that I know that they'll want back," said Nagy, "but we feed off of our defense. Let's face the facts: That's who we are, that's who this team is. We feed off how our defense does, and I'll never question or get on those guys in regards to what I think they're doing or not doing. I'm proud of them. I think they play hard."
The game ultimately came down to the two Saints drives that resulted in touchdowns. The first came in the waning seconds of the first half, with the Bears protecting a 13-3 lead. The drive started favorably for the Bears, with Khalil Mack recording the team's only sack of the day—his fourth in four games.
Nagy even called a timeout with :58 left, believing his defense could get a quick stop and allow the Bears to expand their lead before the half. However, the Saints converted on fourth-and-one near midfield, and then Saints quarterback Drew Brees diced the defense the rest of the way, capping the drive with a 16-yard touchdown to tight end Jared Cook.
Linebacker Roquan Smith said the touchdown resulted from the defense ceding too much ground with time running out.
"You definitely want to try to get the guys down," said Smith. "You don't want them to get any yards. That's any defense. The less yards they get, the less likely they are to score [and] get points in general. Our thing was it happened, so we can't dwell on that."
Smith continued his trend of aggressive play, recording 11 combined tackles, including two for losses. Smith recorded a pair of third-down stops and combined with Mack to foil a fourth-down attempt in the third quarter.
Still, the Bears' bend-but-don't-break-style designed by defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano proved costly at points. In such a close game, even three points can make a difference. In a sudden-death situation in overtime, the defense could not keep the Saints out of field goal range.
"I definitely think we can keep up this style," said Smith, "but obviously, this style isn't good enough. So, therefore, there's always work to do, so we just got to get back in the lab and continue to get better, and that's our focus because it's not good enough."
Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks outright refused to discuss any tension between his unit and the struggling offense. The loss may have carried an extra sting for Hicks, who has long discussed his resentment toward the Saints organization for trading him in 2015.
Hicks said the heartbreak would fuel his next steps.
"You've gotta let it hurt," said Hicks. "You don't work all week to come in Sunday and not perform the way you want to perform. And the ultimate goal of that performance is to get a W. We didn't get that tonight, so it's gonna hurt. You're gonna have that long drive home, and you're gonna be thinking about the things you want to do better."
The Bears now sit at 5-3, two games into what will likely go down as their most challenging stretch of the season—facing the Rams, Saints and Titans in consecutive weeks. Smith said that the defense would keep the loss in perspective.
"There's no panic whatsoever," said Smith. "We're just looking at it as a tough loss tonight. Hats off to those guys over in New Orleans who played a heck of a game. We've just got to focus on getting better, coming out next week and getting back on the winning track. Because that's all it is. You can't hang your head on this L."
Nagy still sees the defense as the heart of his team and sees nothing that would change that in the latter half of the season.
"I'm going to rely on them," said Nagy, "continue to keep listening to their suggestions and where they're at. They're going to keep fighting. Chuck and the coaches are going to do the same thing, and we as a unit collectively, all three phases, can only follow them. I'm proud of them, and I know they're going to always want to play better, but we've just got to keep plugging along."
Regardless of rankings or results, Hicks believes that the team should be considered elite. However, he acknowledged that they team has to improve in several areas before that sentiment can be widely shared.
"You never think down on yourself," said Hicks. "You always keep your confidence high. But you acknowledge the points where you want to improve. You acknowledge the points that may be your weakness, and you attack those. That's my plan."
See the game unfold through the lenses of our sideline photographers as the Bears face off against the Saints at home on a Sunday afternoon in Chicago.