The first days of veteran minicamp have been like the last day of school for the Bears’ defense. Every play is celebrated, whether it’s a simple pass breakup or an interception. The players look like they can’t wait to hit someone — and on a couple of occasions already have come close.
The defense’s enthusiasm set the tone for another spirited practice Wednesday. Linebacker Khalil Mack had one interception, and cornerback Kindle Vildor had two — the first one off Andy Dalton punctuated by a raucous celebration by defensive players that ended with Vildor dunking the ball in a blue bin on the sideline.
It’s a clear indication — of nothing, at this point. It’s June. The Bears are in shorts and shells. It’s fake football that is more about installation, fundamentals, developing chemistry and building practice habits than anything else. But having fun is often a good start.
All we know for sure is that the Bears’ defense is glad to be back on the field and is making a good first impression under rookie coordinator Sean Desai. The Bears have a lot to prove on defense after an uneven 2020 season that wasn’t bad — 11th in yards, 14th in points allowed — but failed to approach the lofty standards set in the glorious 2018 season.
Since reaching a level of dominance with 50 sacks, 36 takeaways and six touchdowns, the Bears’ defense lost its bite in two seasons under Chuck Pagano in 2019 and 2020 — 32 and 35 sacks, 19 and 18 takeaways and one touchdown each season.
When every returning starter except linebacker Roquan Smith skipped the voluntary portion of the offseason program, it was seen by some as an insult to Desai, who in theory needed every second he could get with his entire defense to mold it his way. But if these first two days are any indication, the defense is making up for lost time.
“We’re off to a hot start,” safety Tashaun Gipson said after Wednesday’s practice. “The offense definitely has some new toys and new tools, so they’re challenging us. Sean definitely [has] his work cut out for him.
“For us to be having the success we’re having — and so many weren’t here, for us to jell the way we have, it’s a testament to what Sean is doing right now. So many guys [have] been doing their own thing — [Tuesday] was really our first day being back as a group . . . for us to be performing that way — man, it’s just scary.”
With a veteran defense in place but in need of a boost, coach Matt Nagy could have gone for a proven veteran coordinator to replace Pagano. Instead he chose the 38-year-old Desai, who has been on the Bears’ coaching staff since 2013, including as a quality-control coach under Vic Fangio from 2015-18 and as the safeties coach under Pagano in 2019-20.
It was a leap of faith for Nagy. But Desai’s experience in the defensive system, his knowledge of the current players and his intelligence could be a boon for a defense that needs some fresh, new ideas. With all due respect to Pagano, sometimes change is good.
“You guys know how much respect I have for coach Pagano and what he’s done for the league and for this game and who he is as a person and a coach,” Nagy said. “Being able to retire on his own and doing what he wants to do is pretty awesome. But at the same time, coach Chuck would tell you that him leaving also presents an unbelievable opportunity for Sean.”
Desai still has a lot to prove — particularly calling plays on game day. But this has been a smooth transition. The enthusiasm alone is a sign these players believe in him and what he can do for them.
“When you have a defense that’s rich in talent like the Bears’ defense, where you’ve got guys capable of changing the game on every level, having a guy like Sean is huge because you have a guy who can put every guy in position to make a game-changing play,” Gipson said.
“Having him calling the plays and at the helm is going to be an awesome opportunity for everybody. I think everybody [was] excited once we heard that Sean was going to get that opportunity, and it’s starting to show. We’re getting our hands on a lot of footballs out there, and the defense is making plays, flying around and having fun. It’s a fun time to be a Chicago Bear right now.”