The decision to make linebacker Jonathan Anderson, an undrafted rookie who started the season on the practice squad, the signal-caller for the Bears’ defense seemed ridiculous.
It was “Monday Night Football” against Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, the NFL’s leading passer.
But it turned out to be another ridiculously good move made by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. The Bears’ defense only allowed 13 points in a 22-19 win, and Anderson made a team-best 12 tackles.
“We’re not second-guessing about anything he’s been doing,” cornerback Tracy Porter said. “I can feel great things from this defense are coming.”
The Bears’ defense isn’t great, but at the halfway point, it’s respectable again after the two worst seasons in franchise history.
The Bears are 3-5, but there are statistics that back up a defensive turnaround. They are ninth in total defense (341.9 yards per game) and fifth in passing defense (220.3 yards).
Rams star rookie running back Todd Gurley is a focal point for Sunday, but the Bears have allowed only two rushing touchdowns, tied for the fewest in the league. The longest run the Bears have allowed is Lions safety Isa Abdul-Quddus’ 30-yarder on a fake punt.
The Bears are allowing 27.6 points per game, but that’s as a team. The Bears’ defense has allowed 19 touchdowns, which is two more than the Panthers’ defense and three more than the Patriots’ – two undefeated teams with talent-laden defenses considered among the league’s best.
“But our coach doesn’t even care about stats in reality,” outside linebacker Sam Acho said. “[Fangio] even looks at stats differently. … We’re not worried about where do we rank.”
It’s whom Fangio is succeeding with that’s special and bodes well for the next eight weeks and beyond. Making Anderson the signal-caller is just the latest example. Unlike the Rams’ defense, Fangio’s isn’t full of high-round draft picks.
Fangio promoted undrafted rookie Bryce Callahan to nickel back. He’s won with two rookie safeties, including Harold Jones-Quartey, who went undrafted out of Division II Findlay (Ohio). He started Porter for the first time against the Raiders, and he shut down star rookie Amari Cooper. Fangio has helped make Shea McClellin into a linebacker who’s actually missed.
Players say that Fangio’s game plans are neither simple nor complex. But they understand which calls put more stress on them individually — “That’s where you earn his trust,” McClellin said — and where help is needed. Fangio explains his calls by providing gamelike situations. Overall, players say they feel more aware about everything come game day.
“You couldn’t be more prepared to be honest,” McClellin said. “[Fangio’s] and all the coaches’ game plans are very good. By game time, you’re ready to go.
“There is definitely a difference [for players], and you have to trust it or it’s not going to go well.”
It’s cliché to say that players are being put in the best positions to succeed, but that’s what they believe is happening. The Bears’ pass rush is gradually improving, and the secondary has started to create turnovers.
“No man, it’s true,” Acho said. “For me as a player, I can rest assured that whatever game plan we have, it’s going to put us in the best position to get a ‘W.’ ”
Sometimes that involves players accepting where they struggle. But that level of understanding is another indication that Fangio’s messages and game plans are clicking at Halas Hall.
“Exactly,” Porter said.
Recently, the focus has been on finishing games after tough losses against Lions and Vikings. But the Bears consider closing out the Chargers a good start.
“Even when we do lose by three and don’t finish the way we want to,” Acho said, “you can see through all the fog that, ‘Hey man, we’re building something here.”
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