On a day when Saquon Barkley made yet another defense look silly, Patrick Mahomes threw a no-look pass and did a bevy of other impossible-sounding—and impossible-looking—things, and the Dolphins took down the Patriots on a last-second hook-and-ladder play, it just seemed fitting. A night game at Soldier Field in December. What better a setting to remind football fans that defense does still exist in the NFL?
It’s been a record-setting year for offenses in the NFL—a trend that ESPN highlighted earlier this week. Through the first 13 weeks of this season, there have been more points (47.8), yards (718.4) and passing touchdowns (3.5) per game than at any similar point in league history. There are a series of explanations for this offensive explosion—everything from smarter play calling and more imaginative schemes, to an influx of young, transformational offensive talents, to the substantial increase in illegal contact calls and other defensive points of emphasis from the officials this season.
But for the most part, fans have not complained, and I’ll be the first to admit: it is fun to watch great players do incredible things with a football in their hands. Offense is simply more aesthetically pleasing than defense—something that is true in any sport—making it is easier to appreciate.
But a great defense can be fun too. And yes, in the NFL in 2018, contrary to popular belief, it can still be quite effective. The Bears proved that on Sunday night, beating the Rams 15–6 in an ugly, old-fashioned slugfest behind a dominant performance from Vic Fangio’s defense. Los Angeles came into the night with the No. 2 offense in the league, averaging 34.9 points and 406.1 yards per game—Chicago held them to a meager 214 total yards.
Now don’t get me wrong; the Rams, who have spoiled us with brilliant offensive performances all year, didn’t play especially well. Jared Goff, who had been in the mix for NFL MVP, threw four picks and looked out of sorts all game. Many seemed to point to the possible impact of the cold weather (temperatures hovering above 20 degrees with wind a non-factor) on the West Coast quarterback, but it was the Bears relentless defense—and Sean McVay’s curious decision to largely remove Todd Gurley from the game plan—that decided this game.
The Bears only sacked Goff three times—including one safety—but they were in his personal bubble all game. Seemingly on every drop back, Goff had pass rushers in his face, making him uncomfortable in the pocket and impacting his passes or at times forcing him to run for his life and throw the ball away. Chicago held a Rams team that had averaged 27 carries and 128.7 yards per game on the ground to a mere 52 yards on only 13 carries, making one of the most multi-dimensional offenses in the league look shockingly pedestrian. The Bears defense was so good that the only touchdown scored in the game was a passing play in which Chicago had four defensive lineman on the field. (It was an amazing play action fake to defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, who had a rushing touchdown last week, and then pass to backup offensive tackle Bradley Sowell.)
I’m sure, eventually, the loss will be a positive for this Los Angeles team going forward, serving as a reminder to the players that they can indeed look human and as a template for McVay to study and figure out what he can tinker in the playoffs. But for at least one night, the Rams high-flying offense was grounded— and we should take this rare moment now to appreciate the lost art of defense.