Bears defensive tackle Justin Jones played his first four NFL seasons with the Chargers. Many of his former teammates still play for them. But an emotional reunion will be the last thing on his mind Sunday in Los Angeles.
‘‘It’s the next game on the schedule for me,’’ Jones said. ‘‘I don’t see the whole emotional thing. The biggest thing for me is making sure I do my job and we’re able to win.
‘‘We’re playing pretty well on defense and pretty well as a team. We’re starting to hit our stride and be a really good team every game. So it’s just the next step for our team to take it to the next level.’’
Even though much of the focus is on quarterback Tyson Bagent and his fill-in role with Justin Fields injured, the Bears’ defense still should be the foundation of the rebuild. With Bagent or Fields at quarterback, coordinator Luke Getsy’s offense will have its good games and bad games as part of the 17-game process. But coach Matt Eberflus’ defense needs to be a rock.
That arguably has been the biggest disappointment of the Eberflus era. After linebacker Roquan Smith and defensive end Robert Quinn were traded at midseason last year, a defense that once was ranked 12th in yards allowed and seventh in points allowed finished 29th in yards and 32nd in points.
And even with offseason fortifications and upgrades, the defense still was disappointing — 28th in yards and 31st in points — through the first four weeks this season. It only added to the dismay with Eberflus when the Bears were 0-4. Like former coach Matt Nagy, he couldn’t even seem to get his side of the ball right.
But in three games since then, the Bears’ defense has taken steps toward meeting expectations and regaining the swagger it had in the first week of training camp. The Bears held the Commanders to 84 yards and four yards per play in building a 27-3 halftime lead. They held the Vikings to 220 yards and four yards per play in a 19-13 loss the next week. They held the Raiders to 235 yards and 3.9 yards per play in a 30-12 victory last Sunday.
Now they’re starting to feel it. What happened?
‘‘Aggression, hunger and wanting to win and wanting to get that nasty taste out of our mouth,’’ said cornerback Jaylon Johnson, whose return from a hamstring injury has sparked the uptick. ‘‘We know we were underperforming, so really just getting back to who we are, running out there, attacking, being aggressive, flying around, having energy.’’
With six new starters, the defense feels it finally is starting to act as a unit instead of 11 independent contractors.
‘‘I’ve been seeing a difference in how guys trust one another and how guys are not wanting to let each other down,’’ linebacker Tremaine Edmunds said. ‘‘When you have that, you’re going to have a lot of guys making plays.’’
Johnson echoed that sentiment.
‘‘Having energy, having effort, that’s contagious,’’ he said. ‘‘And it allows you to go out there and ride with your brothers. I think that’s what we were missing in the beginning. We weren’t aggressive enough. I don’t think we were together enough. Just going through that and getting back to that tightness, that tight-knit group we know we can be.’’
After home games against the Vikings without receiver Justin Jefferson and the Raiders with Brian Hoyer and Aidan O’Connell at quarterback, the game Sunday against the Chargers and quarterback Justin Herbert at SoFi Stadium will be the biggest test of that effect. The degree of difficulty gets ramped up. The Bears’ defense has to take an even bigger step forward.