While Bears optimism remains strong locally it seems everyone nationally is trying to think of reasons the Bears can”t repeat as NFC North Division champs and contend for the Lombardi trophy. This, in spite of the Bears having a great 2018 season and in the second season under Matt Nagy. A lot of the noise about regression with the Bears is focused on the defensive side as unbelievable as that sounds. Many believe that the loss of Vic Fangio to become the Broncos head coach is so big that in spite of a roster being stacked with some of the best young talent in the NFL on that side of the ball and hiring an experienced, respected and successful defensive mind in Chuck Pagano that regression is inevitable. One of the other reasons for predicting their possible demise is that the Bears defense have no chance of repeating their production of takeaways from a season ago. Reason three is strength of schedule being much tougher than last season and finally, the Bears remained relatively injury free last season and most believe there is no way that can happen again. I’m going to give you counterpoints to all those questions and tell you why the Bears defense should be even better than a year ago.
Chuck Pagano has a very accomplished resume:
While Fangio’s resume is one to be celebrated Pagano’s isn’t exactly a leftover TV dinner. Before beginning his career in the NFL he was a big time success in college with stints at East Carolina, UNLV and Miami of Florida from 1989-2000. When he made the jump to the NFL for the Cleveland Browns in 2001 he made an immediate impact as their secondary coach where they ranked 1st in pass defense DVOA that year and were 11th in defensive DVOA in 2002 and 11th in 2003. He helped them make their last playoff appearance in 2002 as well.
When the Browns staff was fired after the 2004 season he went on to coach the Oakland Raiders secondary for two seasons from 2005 – 2006 and in spite of them being just 2-14 the defense was ranked 4th in the NFL in defensive DVOA in his second season in 2006. They also ranked 3rd in interception rate that year at 4.39 and 5th in passing yards per play with 5.43. He also helped Nnamdi Asomugha become an All-Pro where he led the league in Interceptions with 8 in 2006. He than left Oakland to coordinate North Carolina in 2007.
He than went on to coach the Ravens secondary from 2008-2010 being on the same staff with Fangio before taking over for Fangio as their coordinator in 2011 where the Ravens followed being ranked #1 in defensive DVOA by ranking #1 in 2011 as well. They also went 12-4 winning the AFC North ranking 3rd in points allowed and 3rd in yards allowed. His work with Ed Reed is legendary and one that got the notice of Eddie Jackson who can’t wait to get to work with his new coach. The Ravens never finished lower than 7th in defensive DVOA while Pagano was in Baltimore.
His failure as Head Coach with the Colts is widely believed to be due to GM Ryan Grigson not providing Pagano with the proper personnel choosing to go offensive heavy to enhance the Andrew Luck led offense. They did rank 10th in 2013 in yards allowed in spite of being bereft of talent on defense in 2013.
Bears may have a more formidable defense this season than in 2018:
One of the reasons prognosticators are predicting a Bears regression is one of the reasons I’m predicting a Bears defensive progression. Injuries. Last season the Bears may not have sustained a ton of man games to injuries but they did suffer some significant ones that prevented the Bears from being even better and maybe even progressing to the next round of the playoffs. The Bears remained incredibly healthy on the offensive side of the ball but did get dinged up on the defensive side and to some of their better players. It started with Leonard Floyd breaking his hand in the third pre-season game and forcing him to play with a club on his hand which obviously limited him significantly. When you look at his production with the club and without it you can see a noticeable difference. This season if he should avoid injuries which he has yet to do in his first three seasons in his NFL career you should see a major step up in production from Floyd. Especially considering every team will understandably gear all their blocking schemes to first and foremost stop Khalil Mack. Number two on that list will certainly be concentrated on Akiem Hicks. Eddie Goldman also requires a double team to prevent him from getting interior penetration and disrupting what teams are trying to do blocking wise on the offensive side of the ball. Than there’s the increase in blitzing that will certainly occur which will devote even less blocking to Floyd’s side which I’ll get into next.
There’s also the fact that Mack missed 2 games and played hurt in two others which noticeably limited him when he sustained a high ankle sprain. When he returned after his two game DL stint he needed some time to get back up to speed to be his usual disruptive self. There’s also the fact Eddie Jackson and Bryce Callahan missed games at the end of the season and in the most important game of the year versus the Eagles in the wildcard round of the playoffs. It was very noticeable too as you saw the Eagles constantly go after Adrian Amos who played the ball in front of him and making the tackles but allowing completion after completion allowing the Eagles to move the sticks. They also went after Sherrick McManis a lot who subbed in for Callahan and did a tremendous job but when the Eagles needed a play at the goal line on 4th down went after McMannis who was not able to get in front of what became the game winning touchdown catch that looked like a play Callahan would have been able to close on and perhaps even intercept it for what would have been a crushing pick-6.
There is also the fact that both, Mack and Roquan Smith will have full training camps as opposed to going without one during their contract holdouts at the start of the 2018 season. As for the latter, Smith will also be in his second season as a pro and should be much better at processing what’s in front of him with the extra season of experience and off-season preparation. Do not be surprised to see an All-Pro campaign by Smith. He’ll also benefit from the more aggressive scheme of Pagano. Smith is an excellent blitzer and getting double a digit sack total from him is not all that unrealistic.
Aside from the previous mentions there’s also the further development of players such as Roy Robertson-Harris and Bilal Nichols to look forward to. Two very good looking young players who should get an increase in playing time and thus be put in position to make more impact plays.
While Buster Skrine is probably a lesser player than that of Callahan he is much more durable and is as physical as Callahan and a very good blitzer which should play in well with Pagano’s scheme. He should also benefit from being surrounded by an all star cast of defensive talent that can cover up for whatever mistakes he may make in coverage with his gambling ways. They also have two very interesting prospects in Duke Shelly and Stephen Denmark. Denmark profiles more of a project with insane athletic traits and may find his way on the practice squad but don’t be surprised to see a promotion at some point during the season should an injury occur. Shelly looks game ready now and may steal some snaps early from Skrine and perhaps even wrestle away the starting Nickle spot before seasons end. The Bears are clearly high on Shelly.
Also keep your attention on some interesting UDFA’s like Matt Betts, and Chuck Harris who could give Isaiah Irving and Kylie Fitts a run for their money as bottom of the depth chart Edge Defenders.
The Bears have increased depth and a ton of playmakers and second and third year players ready to make that next step up in their development which should make the Bears even more dangerous than the year before.
More Blitzing equals more pressure; Thus resulting in more picks and fumbles:
Pagano’s defensive mentality is a bit more aggressive than that of Fangio and fits more along side the philosophy of Bears head coach Matt Nagy. He also has a more out worldly personality and a higher energy level than that of Fangio. However, it’s his more aggressive nature that should make the Bears more productive and even more formidable than even last seasons team. While Pagano does blitz more he doesn’t do it at an astronomical rate as say a James Bettcher or Todd Bowles but will pull out some very exotic difficult to block blitzes at opportune times.
With the fact that he blitzes more it only stands to reason he’ll play a lot more man coverage underneath with a more physical press where Defensive backs will actually get hands on receivers with physical jolting jams at the line of scrimmage to disrupt timing to force Quarterbacks to hold on to the ball longer allowing time for the blitz to get through. This should result in more sacks, sack fumbles and interceptions by pressured Quarterbacks trying to get rid of the ball before getting sacked and throwing the ball too soon and into coverage where ball hawking safeties like Jackon and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix will be waiting to take away would be completions. There’s also the likelihood there will be more batted balls at the line of scrimmage by members of the Bears front-7.
Speaking of the Safeties, there is another place the Bears could be even more successful than last season. With Pagano having a background as a secondary coach he knows how to manipulate the coverages in line with the front-7 to get the best results. This time he has two ball hawking Safeties on the backend to be able to use a more aggressive man cover scheme underneath with two very good starting cornerbacks in Prince Amukamara and Kyle Fuller who also was a Pro Bowler and first team All Pro last season.
Better opponents will make the Bears more prepared for a post season run:
The other negative spin analysts are mentioning for a Bears regression is the more difficult schedule compared to last seasons. While this may result in a lesser regular season record and perhaps even threaten their playoff chances it will make them much more prepared for the post season should they make it and looking at this roster I can’t see a scenario where they don’t make it. Lots of experts see a comeback season from the Vikings and the Packers along with an incremental improvement from the Lions which may take away some division wins for the Bears. While I do see the Vikings as being improved I do not see a better roster or coaching than the Bears. I also see the Bears as having a significantly better roster and coaching than the Packers and the Lions. I do not see the Bears losing the stranglehold on this division anytime soon.
While the Bears play more formidable foes this season many of them are going to play in Soldier Field where the Bears were 7-1 a year ago with the only loss coming against superbowl champs Patriots who basically won by scoring two improbable special teams touchdowns. One, where a blatant blocking behind the back penalty that triggered the hole for Cordarrell Patterson to run through where McMannis had that hole filled until moved off from said block behind the back. The other on a blocked punt that occured when Ben Braunecker was tripped up by his own teammate allowing him to lose his balance and get pancaked by the player who would not have otherwise blocked the punt. It was also the game Mack sustained his high ankle sprain early on forcing him to play more in coverage as he could not push off his ankle to get an effective rush with. Floyd still had his club at the time limiting his effectiveness.
This should play to the Bears advantage when they host the likes of the Saints, Chargers, Cowboys and Kansas City some of their tougher opponents. Giants being the other non division visiting team. The road games of their non division foes are against Washington, Raiders, Eagles, Rams and Broncos significantly less formidable than their home opponents. So while the schedule appears vaunting it’s not nearly as formidable than it would appear. The biggest advantage for all home teams is the advantage it gives the defense with crowd noise so expect the defense to capitalize on this.
While there are cases to be made for defensive regression there are even more for the case for progression. Aside from the above mentioned counterpoints to the biggest reasons for regression there is the fact the Bears figure to improve offensively which will benefit the defense by providing bigger and earlier leads to put the Bears in full fledged pass defense and putting offenses in more predictable passing downs. It will also improve the defenses field position against as well as more time off the field as the Bears figure to dominate in time of possession.
The other is improved special teams which will also give the Bears defense more downs inside the opponents 20 and more points on the board with improved field position for the offense and hopefully more field goals being made. This should be another banner season for the team in their 100 year anniversary season.