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1st-and-10: Sean Desai shows promise in uneven rookie year

The Bears’ defense was unable to recapture the takeaway magic of 2018 under Vic Fangio, but it has overcome injuries and absences to prove it still has some gas left in the tank heading into the 2022 season.

Sean Desai was the Bears’ defensive coordinator in 2021.
The Bears’ defense ranks fifth in yards allowed and first in sacks in Sean Desai’s first season as defensive coordinator.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Is Sean Desai a keeper?

While the search for an NFL-quality offense is never-ending at Halas Hall, the Bears historically have sought continuity with their defense, even through coaching changes.

Even before Mike Ditka was hired to replace Neill Armstrong in 1982, defensive players implored George Halas to keep coordinator Buddy Ryan — and he did, with a huge payoff. When Lovie Smith was fired in 2012, new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker kept the language from Smith’s defense to ease the transition and sustain what was left of a once-vaunted unit. When John Fox was fired in 2017, Matt Nagy convinced Vic Fangio — who was bypassed for the head-coaching job — to return as defensive coordinator. It was the best move Nagy made in four years as coach.

So here we are again in familiar territory with an imminent coaching change — with an offense that needs an overhaul and a defense worth saving. The Bears’ defense is aging but with enough pieces in place to still be a force — inside linebacker Roquan Smith, pass rushers Robert Quinn and Khalil Mack, cornerback Jaylon Johnson, safety Eddie Jackson and defensive linemen Eddie Goldman and Bilal Nichols. And the team has an emerging pass rusher in Trevis Gipson, who could play a bigger role if Mack does not return.

The Bears promoted Desai from safeties coach to coordinator after Chuck Pagano retired last season. Nagy being on the hot seat entering 2021 probably limited his options, but Desai was a credible choice.

Desai’s first season has produced mixed results. The Bears have jumped from 11th to fifth in yards allowed but dropped from 11th to 12th in yards allowed per play and from 14th to 20th in scoring defense. They’ve improved from 17th to first in sacks per pass play, but actually dropped from 24th to 26th in interceptions. They’ve stayed at eighth in third-down efficiency.

“The good thing with Sean is going into it, he never experienced calling plays at the NFL level,” Nagy said. “And right from the beginning, I thought he’s done a great job of adjusting and adapting to the NFL game.

“The thing I like about Sean is he is extremely calm — and he does a great job of making sure that guys feel that. There’s not panic. He’s super-smart. He does a great job of scheming with those coaches and preparing. Guys are playing hard. When you have a young first-time coordinator who continues to grow, that’s all you can really ask for.”

Desai’s rookie season hasn’t made him the must-keep coordinator that Fangio was. But while his defense has had some issues — late-game breakdowns and only 15 takeaways, fourth-fewest in the NFL — Desai hasn’t been in over his head by any stretch. With his experience with this defense and his knowledge of this group, he figures to at least warrant consideration by Nagy’s presumed successor.

2. Regardless of Desai’s future with the Bears, his resume was a big winner Sunday.

The Bears’ dominant defensive performance, albeit against the woeful Giants — four takeaways, four sacks, 151 net yards allowed and minus-10 passing yards — further separates him from the overall mess. The Bears’ defense is fifth in yards allowed and first in sacks. The offense is 28th in total yards and last in sacks allowed.

Not only that, but with Joe Burrow’s second consecutive spectacular performance — 446 yards and four touchdown passes against the Chiefs after 525 yards and four touchdown passes against the Ravens — Desai’s defensive scheme that flummoxed Burrow in the Bears’ 20-17 victory over the Bengals in Week 2 is looking better and better.

The Bears intercepted Burrow on three consecutive passes, including Roquan Smith’s 53-yard return for a touchdown. It was the first time Burrow had been intercepted more than once in 12 NFL games. Even with two late touchdowns, Burrow’s 66.2 passer rating is the second-lowest of his two-year career. The only one lower (66.1) was in his NFL debut against the Chargers in 2020.

Burrow and the Bengals’ offense surely are better now than in Week 2. But on paper, the Bears’ performance against Burrow looks like a big notch in Desai’s belt.

3. Speaking of former secondary coaches with one year of experience as a defensive coordinator … if Steelers coach Mike Tomlin ever is looking for a new challenge, he seems like a good candidate to be a team’s president of football operations.

It’s true that Tomlin’s success as a head coach — a Super Bowl and 15 consecutive non-losing seasons — is with one quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger). But from the outside, his leadership, temperament, management qualities and ability to bridge old school with new school seem right for the football-operations job. And his respect for the media indicates an understanding of every aspect of an organization’s success.

4. The Bears are the only team in the NFL with three quarterbacks who have won at least one game this season — Justin Fields (2-8), Andy Dalton (3-2) and Nick Foles (1-0).

On the other hand, the Bears haven’t had a quarterback start all 16 games since Jay Cutler in 2009. The value of quarterback continuity can’t be overstated. The top seven seeds in the AFC playoff bracket have a quarterback who has started all 16 games this season. The No. 1 quarterbacks on the top seven seeds in the NFC have started 104 of 112 games (92.9%).

5. After beating the Seahawks with Foles and the Giants with Dalton, the Bears have a chance to win their last three games with a different starting quarterback each time if Fields can beat the Vikings.

That’s unlikely to save Nagy’s job — though stranger things have happened at Halas Hall. The last Bears coach to be fired despite winning his last three games was Armstrong in 1981.

Like Nagy, Armstrong had one winning season in four — 10-6 in 1979, when the Bears made the playoffs for only the second time since 1963. Armstrong was replaced by Ditka — owner Halas’ handpicked choice. And the rest … is history.

6. Quinn took the NFL lead in sacks with his 18th on Sunday, but it didn’t last long. The Steelers’ T.J. Watt had four sacks against the Browns on Monday night to give him 21.5 for the season. The Bears haven’t had a player lead the league in sacks since Richard Dent had 17 in 1985.

Then again, the last Bear to lead the NFL in passing yards was Johnny Lujack in 1949 (2,658). The last Bear to lead the NFL in receiving yards was Johnny Morris in 1964 (1,200).

7. Pairing a young quarterback with a former college receiver has been a hit this season — Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase (79 receptions, 1,429 yards, 18.1 average, 13 touchdowns), Tua Tagovailoa to Jaylen Waddle (99-988, 10.0, five) and Jalen Hurts to DeVonta Smith (61-875, 14.3, five).

But there doesn’t seem to be any way the Bears can get Ohio State’s Chris Olave for Fields. Olave is considered a top-five draft pick. And the Bears traded their 2022 first-round pick to the Giants to draft Fields.

8. Josh McCown Ex-Bear of the Week: Kicker Robbie Gould of the 49ers was 3-for-3 on field goals (37, 27 and 36 yards) and 2-for-2 on extra points in a 23-7 victory over the Texans.

Gould has made 142 of 160 field-goal attempts (88.8%) since the Bears released him in 2016. He has scored 1,821 points in his 17-year career — 13th on the NFL’s all-time list.

9. Bear-ometer: 7-10 — at Vikings (W).

10a. Kudos to chairman George McCaskey and the Bears for stepping up on multiple levels to honor our beloved Bears beat colleague, ESPN’s Jeff Dickerson, who died at 43 on Dec. 28 after a yearlong battle with colon cancer. The Bears held a moment of silence for Dickerson (and former Raiders coach John Madden) before Sunday’s game against the Giants. They also had a classy memorial at Dickerson’s press-box seat, with flowers and pictures of JD.

The Bears donated $25,000 to a GoFundMe account for Dickerson’s 11-year-old son, Parker, who also lost his mother, Caitlin, to cancer in 2019. Nagy donated $7,600 to the fund, honoring JD’s correct prediction that the Bears would draft Teven Jenkins, who wears No. 76. (Special thanks to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, who used his massive Twitter platform to elicit donations to the Parker Dickerson Fund, which stands at $1.1 million.) Nagy, coordinators Desai, Bill Lazor and Chris Tabor and several players offered condolences before speaking to the media last week. Punter Pat O’Donnell wore a “JD” hoodie to the game on Sunday.

10b. A personal perspective: Jeff left an indelible mark on everyone he touched. I have been in Chicago media for the last 35 years and covered every major beat in town — and JD was the most universally well-liked, well-respected and admired reporter in this town in that span. His professionalism, his excellence and his steadfast positivity — especially through the toughest of times — will serve as not only a great memory of the person JD was, but as an inspiration and a guiding light for many of us. I’m grateful and honored to have known him.