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Sean Desai could be a difference-maker vs. Packers

The first-year defensive coordinator has added some inventive wrinkles that already have put some of the bite back in the Bears’ defense. They’ll need every bit of it against Aaron Rodgers on Sunday.

Outside linebacker Khalil Mack (52, sacking Derek Carr last week) has five of the Bears’ NFL-leading 18 sacks through five games this season — not including a sack on a two-point conversion against the Raiders.
Outside linebacker Khalil Mack (52, sacking Derek Carr last week) has five of the Bears’ NFL-leading 18 sacks through five games this season — not including a sack on a two-point conversion against the Raiders.
David Becker/AP Photos

Safety Tashaun Gipson’s sack of Derek Carr last week wasn’t the biggest play in the Bears’ 20-9 win over the Raiders in Las Vegas, but it wasn’t insignificant.

On a first-and-10 with the Bears leading 17-9 with 2:45 left in the fourth quarter, the Raiders were looking for a big downfield play, but Gipson blitzed, fended off a block by running back Josh Jacobs and tackled Carr for a two-yard loss.

The blitz call by defensive coordinator Sean Desai led to not only Gipson’s first career sack but also the first sack by a Bears defensive back since 2018, when safety Deon Bush sacked the Lions’ Matthew Stafford on the final play of the first half at Ford Field. (Safety Eddie Jackson was credited with a sack in 2019 against the Cowboys, but that was for being the closest defensive player to quarterback Dak Prescott when he ran out of bounds for a loss.)

“First career sack out of 10 years — that’s crazy,” Gipson said. “That let you know my [previous] defensive coordinators didn’t appreciate my pass-rush ability. Sean [does]. That’s why I told you, Sean’s my guy.”

Indeed, Bears defensive players are loving Desai even more than when he first was promoted to replace Chuck Pagano after last season — and new wrinkles like safety blitzes are one reason why. The previous week against the Lions, backup safety DeAndre Houston-Carson’s blitz created a hole for linebacker Khalil Mack to sack Jared Goff for a six-yard loss to force a punt.

Desai pulled the same stunt against the Bengals when he put outside linebackers Robert Quinn and Mack on the same side, with Mack’s pressure creating space for Quinn to sack Joe Burrow.

Desai’s new twists might be the best thing the Bears have going for them against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Sunday. In his 14th season as a starter, Rodgers is a step ahead of every coordinator in the league, and especially in the NFC North. The best chance to minimize that advantage is to throw something at him he hasn’t seen before — and even then, it had better work, because he learns quickly.

It takes a lot of coaching brain power to contain Rodgers. The last time the Bears beat the Packers — 24-17 at Soldier Field in 2018 — they had Vic Fangio, Brandon Staley and Desai on their defensive staff. Against Pagano’s defense last year, the Packers scored 41 points at Lambeau Field and 35 at Soldier Field, with Rodgers throwing four touchdowns without an interception in each game.

Even Fangio struggled to contain Rodgers. The three-time NFL MVP threw 14 touchdown passes to two interceptions in seven games against Fangio’s Bears defenses. After his promotion, Desai pushed back slightly against the notion he’s strictly a Fangio disciple and indicated he has his own ideas. And he acknowledged there are “some things” he’ll do against Rodgers that other coordinators he worked for have not — with some reservation.

“It wouldn’t have been something like, ‘Hey, man, I think this and I’m not gonna share it with anybody,’ ” Desai said about ideas he had to combat Rodgers. “At the end of the day, it’s still 11-on-11 football, and no matter what you do, it’s about impacting guys in different ways. Obviously, he’s a primary guy you’ve got to impact with disguise, rush, coverage. . . . You’ve got to respond to the running backs and [receiver] Davante Adams and other skill guys they’ve got.

“Our biggest point of emphasis is that we’ve got to be technique- and fundamentally sound in this game and make sure we’re running to the football the way we want to run to the football.”

Against Rodgers, it probably will take more than just playing good football. It’ll be up to Desai to come up with something extra.