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Bears’ ‘Salty’ defense aims to prove 2023 late-season success was no fluke



Asked about his defense during OTAs, Bears defensive coordinator Eric Washington used the word “salty” to describe his unit. It seemed a fitting moniker for a group that had some success late in the season last year but is still playing with a chip on its shoulder.

The Bears’ defense has to prove that it can play at that high level for a full season. It has to prove that the progress it made in November, December and January was real and sustainable.

That’s why Washington sees his group as “salty.” They take nothing for granted and they’re loud out there on the practice field. When the offense makes a mistake, the defensive players are sure to let their offensive counterparts know about it.

“That is just a part of their DNA, but definitely we want to play with an edge,” Washington said. “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.”

The Bears wrapped up the spring practice period earlier this month. The team is now on a monthlong break before it returns to Halas Hall in Lake Forest for training camp on July 19.

At times during the spring, it was apparent that the defense was further along than the offense. As it should be. The defense returns nine of 11 starters. This group was statically one of the top defenses in the league during the final eight games of the year.

Bears defensive end Montez Sweat (98) is an important part of what new defensive coordinator calls a “salty” defense.
AP

What really instigated that success was the Bears’ trade for defensive end Montez Sweat. Sweat totaled 6 sacks and 14 quarterback hits in nine games as a member of the Bears last season. It was his first double-digit sack season (12.5) and he became the first player to lead two teams in sacks (his 6.5 sacks with Washington were a team high for the Commanders).

Sweat returned to Halas Hall for minicamp earlier this month and he loved the energy he felt from the defense.

“It’s exciting,” Sweat said. “I think to play football, you’ve got to have maybe a screw or two loose. When you’re out there having fun and talking smack, it makes it so much more fun for everybody around you.”

The only new additions to the starting lineup are veteran safety Kevin Byard and second-year defensive tackle Gervon Dexter. Byard signed a two-year, $15 million contract in free agency. Dexter was a second-round draft pick last year who played in all 17 games coming off the bench. With veteran Justin Jones gone, Dexter is poised to join the starting lineup.

Byard is a former Pro Bowl performer who takes over a starting safety spot vacated by Eddie Jackson, whom the Bears cut in February. Washington has paid attention to Byard’s career for a while.

“His production speaks for itself,” Washington said. “So from afar, you look at that, you see a safety who has that type of ball production and then you get him here, you see the command, the intelligence, his ability to communicate very quickly, especially as we need to make adjustments before the ball is snapped. I just like him, he’s got a great personality.”

His teammates also have raved about Byard’s communication at the back end of the defense. He seems to be fitting in quite seamlessly with the rest of the defense. He has 28 interceptions in 130 regular-season games. He has twice been a first-team All-Pro, including as recently as 2021.

The spring was an opportunity for the defense, both newcomers and returning players, to work on the basic techniques of Matt Eberflus’ 4-3 defensive scheme. With no pads on, it’s hard to get a true sense of how good this defense could be. Nobody is hitting each other in practice and it’s tough to read too much into what’s happening in the trenches.

Still, the continuity is the most obvious take-away. This is a group that should hit the ground running when Week 1 comes around in September.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the same defense from last year, but it’s pretty much the same,” Sweat said. “We’re familiar with the guys that are around us. So just stacking the days and really just creating that chemistry.”



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