The building blocks were hard to find — “Scattered,” he said — when Vic Fangio took over the Bears’ defense 110 days ago. Someone even detailed statistics to the coordinator that painted the team he inherited as, the previous two seasons combined, the worst in football.
When Fangio began remaking the Bears defense into his preferred 3-4 scheme, then, he did it with eyes wide open.
“We’re going to have to make our own building blocks,” he said Saturday, his first public comments since his January hiring. “But I think any time you come to a new place, the first job is to make the players you already have better. That’s our job, No. 1, before you talk about free agency and the draft and whatnot.
“So we need to make the guys that we have here, better.”
The 56-year-old also needs to find positional fits, develop the two defensive players the Bears drafted last week and work alongside his boss, who’s admired him from afar for 30 years.
“Hopefully, for most of us, the more you do it the better you get,” John Fox said. “He’s seen a lot, been through a lot. There is wisdom and experience that comes with that.”
He’ll need every bit of it.
Fangio’s version of the 3-4 — in which at least one of four linebackers join three down linemen in rushing —is a hybrid. The Bears won’t always line up a nose tackle directly over the center and ends over the offensive tackle. Sometimes, he said, they’ll resemble a 4-3 “over” or “under” front.
Having long, aggressive outside linebackers gives him the freedom to shift the formation.
“It’s called a 3-4 defense,” he said. “But in some ways you can call it a 5-2.”
That flexibility is why Fox lobbied Fangio to choose the Bears job over the Redskins, with whom he interviewed in January.
“The 3-4 has always been a little trickier,” Fox said. “It’s different so teams have to get ready for it in a short period of time. There are some disguises of it—of who the fourth rusher is. So I think it’s a little bit of the element of surprise.
“They do a good job of disguising, so it’s hard to see if you’re a single-high or a split safety —all of those things.
“And I think he’s an excellent teacher, and understands the game of football.”
Ask Fangio if he inherited any natural fits to his 3-4, and he pauses for a minute before naming obvious four-time Pro Bowler Jeremiah Ratliff, who could play either nose tackle or defense end, and the 2014 first-round pick, cornerback Kyle Fuller.
The list turns more obscure, toward two inside linebackers: Christian Jones, the former undrafted free agent Fangio said has “got a bright future if he can develop,” and Shea McClellin.
McClellin has good instincts, he said, and can blitz from his third different position in as many years.
“He has been hindered, I think, by being moved around,” Fangio said. “To no fault of anybody’s, just the way it goes. I think he’s got a chance to be a good inside linebacker.”
That evaluation extends to outside linebacker, where, Fangio said, he’s never had so many veteran defensive ends trying to learn a new position.
Free-agent signees Pernell McPhee and Sam Acho have experience in a 3-4, but Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and, once he returns from injury, Willie Young, among others, are learning as they go. They’ll be expected to play coverage, but nothing too complicated.
“We expect a good pass rush from them,” Fangio said, “so that’s no different than being an end.”
Allen did well during the veteran minicamp and should benefit from the Bears playing nickel coverage, in which the outside linebackers will be asked to rush the passer —be it standing or from a stance — like an end.
“Like I told him, ‘I think he can have a rebirth to his career here playing a little bit of a new position,’” Fangio said.
Heart and soul
The Bears’ top defensive draft pick, Eddie Goldman, fulfills Fangio’s first wish for a lineman.
“We don’t feel like he’ll get knocked back into our inside linebackers, which is really important,” he said. “That’s Job 1 for any of the three guys up front.”
Who those three are will be one of the defense’s most interesting questions as the calendar crawls toward training camp. If Goldman starts, Ratliff can move to end.
The controversial Ray McDonald, who followed Fangio from the 49ers, could play the other end. So, too, can another signee on a one-year deal, former Redskins run stuffer Jarvis Jenkins.
”The three down linemen to me are the heart and soul of the defense,” Fangio said. “If they’re getting pushed around, it doesn’t matter what you’re in, we’re in trouble.”
Rather than rattle off the places where Fangio has been a successful NFL coordinator —the 49ers, Texans, Colts and Panthers– Fox simply uses one of his favorite phrases.
Fangio has “skins on the wall,” he said.
“He’s done that,” Fox said. “Developed a lot of very, very good players. He’s a good teacher. He’s got a good system. He’s put together a good staff to help him.”
Fangio posted a top-five defense all four seasons in San Francisco. While he won’t likely do that this season, there’s nowhere to go but up.
“We want to be doing the right thing from an assignment standpoint, do it the right way from a technique standpoint and then play hard,” Fangio said.
“And if we’re talented enough, we’ll be good.”