It’s time for Chuck Pagano to actually do some work.
That’s an exaggeration, of course. Pagano has been fine-tuning the Bears’ defense since they hired him as their new coordinator in January, but the operation isn’t as turnkey as it once appeared.
The defensive dropoff is jolting because that’s the one thing no one ever worries about with the Bears. There was a thought that this defense could keep them in the Super Bowl mix no matter what. That safety net hasn’t been there lately.
“We have played to [our] standard at times,” Pagano said. “I think it’s just consistency. You look at the first half of the last game — we played well and we played consistent. Now we’ve got to do it for 60 minutes.”
Their first half against the Saints was solid, with New Orleans scoring 12 points on a blocked punt for a safety, a 24-yard touchdown drive off Anthony Miller’s lost fumble and a long field goal. The Bears deteriorated in the second half, though, and the result was one of their worst defensive performances of the last two seasons.
When they struggled against the Raiders, it was logical to write it off as an aberration. But after the Saints ripped through the Bears, there seems to be a legitimate problem.
Fixing it falls entirely on Pagano. While Nagy has final say, he hired Pagano as essentially head coach of the defense. Nagy hasn’t spent any additional time working with the defensive staff over the last few weeks.
“No, no, that’s their deal and they’re doing a great job,” he said. “It’s ultimate trust.”
Over the first four games, the Bears looked like exactly the defense everyone expected. They were top-five in total yardage allowed, run stopping, takeaways and sacks, and there wasn’t a single alarming statistic to be found anywhere else.
The last two games? Few teams have been worse.
The Bears are in the bottom five in yards allowed (411 per game), rushing yards allowed (160 per game) and takeaways (one per game). They were third in the NFL in sacks through September, but have just one in 71 opportunities over the last two games. The Raiders and Saints combined to score 60 points on them.
They’ve hit some snags personnel-wise, notably defensive tackle Akiem Hicks going on Injured Reserve and linebacker Roquan Smith hitting a rough patch, but that’s not enough to explain such a drastic swing from one of the league’s elite defenses to one of its leakiest.
The offense’s failures are making the job harder, too. The Bears rank 24th in average time of possession at 28:29, and that number got a boost when they held it for 35:27 in the win over the Vikings.
“It doesn’t matter,” Pagano said. “We’ve gotta go do our job. If you get off the field and — they don’t convert on third down, you get off. That’ll help that.”
The Bears were No. 3 in third-down stops through four games, allowing just 27.1 percent conversions. That rocketed to 48.1 percent the last two games, sixth-worst in the league during that span.
Pagano was particularly vexed by the Saints converting 7 of 15 last week. They picked up first downs or touchdowns on third-and-7, 6, 6, and 5.
The Bears have averaged 67.3 defensive plays per game, seventh-most in the NFL. Of the six teams that have logged more snaps on defense, four have losing records.
That’s led to high mileage on cornerbacks Kyle Fuller (99.5 percent of the snaps) and Prince Amukamara (98.8), safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (98.6) and Eddie Jackson (97) and linebacker Danny Trevathan (96.5).
Khalil Mack has played 84.1 percent of the snaps and is on pace to log 963 for the season, his most since 2015.
“I think we can all be better,” Pagano said. “I can be better. ... You’ve got to put them in the right position — I do.”