Bears coach Matt Nagy faces big decision on DC

With the Bears’ defense at a crossroads and Nagy on the hot seat, it remains to be seen just how desirable the team’s defensive coordinator position is.

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Roquan Smith (58, sacking Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins on Nov. 16 at Soldier Field) had 18 tackles-for-loss in 2020.

Nam Y. Huh/AP Photos

As Matt Nagy has struggled to build a productive offense in three seasons as the Bears head coach, the lament of Bears fans who have seen this movie too many times has resonated more and more each day: By the time Nagy gets it figured out, the vaunted Bears defense will be over the hill.

The Bears sure seem headed in that direction, with the offense spinning its wheels again in 2020. The Bears defense that was dominant in 2018 under Vic Fangio is showing signs of wear and tear.

Linebacker Khalil Mack was on the injury list 13 times in 17 games — and questionable for 10 of them — with injuries to his knee, back, ankle, back again and shoulder. Linebacker Danny Trevathan was hot-and-cold but not the same player he was prior to the elbow injury that ended his 2019 season. Akiem Hicks had nine quarterback hits in his last five games but wasn’t the dominant force he had been — after getting 3 1/2 sacks in the first three games in 2020, he had none in his final 12 games.

That leaves the defense at a crossroads heading into the 2021 season. Is this defense still capable of returning to an elite level? Or is it headed for a steeper fall as more and more players get deeper into their 30s?

Nagy’s search for a defensive coordinator to replace Chuck Pagano, who announced his retirement Wednesday, could be an indication of which way the arrow is pointing. With Nagy on the hot seat in 2021, the coordinator’s job carries inherent risk. But with so many prime, proven pieces in place, it’s also an attractive opportunity.

So while the Bears defense has dropped from first in points allowed in 2018 to ninth in 2019 and 14th in 2020, there’s also room for growth in 2021.

  • The presumed return of nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who opted out of the 2020 season because of the coronavirus, could give the Bears an elite defensive line with Hicks — if he survives a potential salary-cap purge — and Bilal Nichols, who had five sacks and 13 quarterback hits in place of Goldman in 2020.
  • Their best player is getting better. At 23, Roquan Smith had 18 tackles-for-loss and made the All-Pro second team in 2020. He’s primed for an even bigger step in 2021. And rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson looks like a long-term starter.
  • On paper, the Bears’ defense is not over the hill, with a solid nucleus of under-30 players in 2021 in Roquan (24), Fuller (29), Nichols (25), Johnson (22), Goldman (27) and Jackson (28). And defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris (28) could return as a free agent after missing the final eight games in 2020.

Nagy surely will have options. He could promote a current position coach to keep continuity. Jay Rodgers (defensive line) and Sean Desai (safeties) worked under Fangio — which might carry considerable weight after former outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley blossomed as the Rams’ coordinator this season. Ted Monachino (outside linebackers) was a coordinator for Pagano in Indy. Deshea Townsend played for the great Dick LeBeau.

Veteran coordinators with credentials include Falcons interim head coach Raheem Morris, former Seahawks coordinator Kris Richard and even former Eagles coordinator Jim Schwartz.

One particularly intriguing veteran is 73-year-old Wade Phillips, who might not excite the masses, but has a history of immediate impact — with the Texans in 2011 (from 29th to fourth in scoring); the Broncos in 2015 (16th to fourth in scoring, and a victory in Super Bowl 50) and Rams in 2017 (23rd to 12th in scoring).

It’s a key hire for Nagy, with the ultimate incentive: He’s running out of time. And so is the Bears’ defense.

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