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New Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano knows he can’t waste elite unit he inherited

Chuck Pagano stepped into a great situation, but any drop-off by the Bears’ defense will be pinned on him.

Chuck Pagano takes over a defense that was among the NFL’s elite last season.
[Brian O’Mahoney/For the Sun-Times]

BOURBONNAIS — It’s a stretch to say that anybody could coach the Bears’ loaded defense. Then again, the way Khalil Mack has been blowing things up in training camp, it does look pretty easy for new coordinator Chuck Pagano.

The top jobs on any coaching staff usually come open because something went sideways, but this is the opposite. This defense was so dominant last season that it propelled former coordinator Vic Fangio to the Broncos’ head coaching job.

This is the NFL’s most fearsome starting 11, and most of them played together last year when the unit allowed the fewest points in the league. Fangio left behind the keys to a Lamborghini.

“I walked into the very best situation ... that anybody could walk into,” Pagano said after practice Thursday. “It’s just our job to make sure that we do the right

“I walked into the very best situation ... that anybody could walk into,” Chuck Pagano said of becoming the Bears defensive coordinator.
Brian O’Mahoney/For the Sun-Times

thing and put these guys in the right spots so that they can play fast and continue to build on the foundation that’s already been laid.”

There certainly are a lot of advantages for Pagano, none greater than Mack, but they come with immense pressure. There are few concerns about the Bears heading into this season, but the transition from Fangio to Pagano is one of them.

Pagano has tweaked their scheme, he’ll have different play-calling tendencies and he’s teaching players a new set of terminology. With all of that going on, any drop-off from last season will almost certainly be blamed on him.

“We all know what we signed up for,” he said. “Players and coaches, we understand what the expectations are.”

Truthfully, his job is harder than it might seem.

The Bears needed someone proven to replace Fangio, and Pagano has been coaching defense since before any of his players were born.

This is his 18th NFL season after a long college career, and he was most recently the Colts’ head coach from 2012 to 2017. That experience is especially important with the Bears, where coach Matt Nagy runs the offense and gives his defensive coordinator autonomy.

The Bears want their defense to be fiercer and more aggressive this season, and blitz-happy Pagano has spent the last few months devising ways to blend his strategy with the talents of the players he inherited.

That process is going well so far, and Nagy said the new-look defense is “way past where I thought they were going to be.”

That side has thoroughly handled the offense so far in training camp, and Mack has been a wrecking ball. He torpedoed a red-zone drill Thursday by smacking the ball the moment it left Mitch Trubisky’s fingers and catching it for an interception. Even if the offense manages to avoid Mack, the Bears have Pro Bowl defenders looming at every level.

“I don’t think there is any other defense in the NFL that I’d rather go against in practice every day,” Nagy said. “These guys fly around, they do different things and it makes us better... But it’s definitely challenging.”

Pagano quickly endeared himself to players with his energy and his backstory as a man who survived cancer during the 2012 season. There was instant respect. Mack called him, “one of the best people that I’ve had the chance to work with.”

Pagano is also recharged after sitting out last season, the first time he’s been out of work since beginning his career as a graduate assistant at Southern Cal in 1984. Not that this guy would ever need a reminder to appreciate each day, but he’s particularly grateful to be coaching again.

“It’s what I love to do,” he said. “Thirty-three straight years, man, and (last season) you don’t have a team? My family, my wife, my kids don’t have anybody to root for. Now we’ve got a team again.

“And again, it’s as good a situation as I could have ever come into. I’m truly blessed to be here.”