Chicago Bears OTA notes: Defense wants to play ‘with an edge’ in 2024

Safety Kevin Byard: ‘We’re expecting to be a top defense’

Chicago Bears safety Kevin Byard speaks during an NFL football press conference Thursday, March 14, 2024, at Halas Hall in Lake Forest, Ill. (AP Photo/Erin Hooley)

LAKE FOREST – Veteran safety Kevin Byard came to the Bears in free agency for a reason. It wasn’t to be the doormat of the NFC North.

“We’re expecting to be a top defense,” Byard said Thursday at Halas Hall. “Anything less than that is a letdown.”

The Bears began organized team activities last week. That included one practice Thursday that was open to members of the media. Rookie quarterback Caleb Williams had some struggles against the Bears defense. While some Bears fans might have overreacted to the No. 1 overall pick’s tough day, a counterargument could be made.

The Bears are poised to have an impressive defense in 2024.

While Williams and the offense were missing four starters because of various reasons, the defense was nearly at full strength. Only defensive end Montez Sweat wasn’t present in his usual spot on the defensive line. The Bears enter their third season in Matt Eberflus’ 4-3 defensive scheme, and they do so after finishing as one of the best defenses in the NFL during the second half of last season.

It comes as no surprise that this group has a high ceiling.

For the most part, the cast of characters will remain the same. Byard is the most notable change in the lineup. He takes over at safety after the Bears cut veteran Eddie Jackson in a cost-saving measure. Byard signed a two-year, $15 million free agent contract in March.

With a rookie quarterback coming in, not to mention a new offensive coordinator and a new scheme on that side of the ball, Byard knows the defense might have to carry the load early in the season.

“As a defense, we’ve go to make sure that we’re being a top defense, every single day just having that consistency,” Byard said. “As a team, obviously, as we get later in the year and those guys are rolling, all three phases are rolling together, just being a defense we’ve got to make sure that we’re holding down our end of the bargain no matter what the score is, what the offense is doing.”

The Bears brought in a new defensive coordinator in Eric Washington, a veteran coach with previous defensive coordinator experience. Washington has coached several good defensive lines in the past, including a Panthers squad that reached the Super Bowl in 2015 and the recent Buffalo Bills units.

Washington has been impressed with another newcomer to the starting lineup. The Bears lost defensive tackle Justin Jones in free agency (he left for Arizona). Second-year tackle Gervon Dexter appears poised to step into the starting lineup. Dexter came on strong toward the end of last season.

Chicago Bears defensive tackle Zacch Pickens (left) and defensive tackle Gervon Dexter Sr. listen to a coach during their preseason game against the Tennessee Titans Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023, at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Dexter totaled nine of his 12 QB hits during the second half of his rookie season.

“The biggest thing is just how assertive he is,” Washington said. “You can tell there’s a growing confidence. He’s assertive. He believes that he belongs in the lineup, and he believes that he can be a major factor.”

Washington and Eberflus have been impressed with Dexter. Eberflus noted that Dexter showed up for spring practice a little bit slimmer and quicker.

“His movement, his athletic ability is even better now because he really worked on his body,” Eberflus said.

Washington is happy with what he has seen from the defensive line through the first week of OTAs. He said the pass rush has “revised and refined” the fundamentals. The Bears were elite in the secondary, tying San Francisco with a league-high 22 interceptions. The next step is to bring the defensive line up to that level.

We want to compete with an edge.”

—  Eric Washington, Bears defensive coordinator

The D-line did play well after the Bears traded for Sweat at the trade deadline. Now, the Bears are hoping they can do it from the outset in 2024.

“We want to compete with an edge,” Washington said. “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.”

Sean Hammond

Sean Hammond

Sean is the Chicago Bears beat reporter for the Shaw Local News Network. He has covered the Bears since 2020. Prior to writing about the Bears, he covered high school sports for the Northwest Herald and contributed to Friday Night Drive. Sean joined Shaw Media in 2016.