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Bears’ defense needs much more than ‘tuneup’ as coordinator Sean Desai takes over

The Bears’ defense was good, but it needs to be great for them to accomplish anything in 2021. And that’s a bigger jump than Desai portrays.

Khalil Mack has had back-to-back seasons under 10 sacks.
Khalil Mack has had back-to-back seasons under 10 sacks.
Kamil Krzaczynski/AP

New Bears defensive coordinator Sean Desai said all the right things in his opening news conference Monday — especially dropping Vic Fangio’s name as often as possible — and painted a rosy picture of his momentous task.

It wouldn’t have been prudent of him to come out in his first public comments and give a detailed critique of the Bears’ roster flaws and the ways in which his predecessor, Chuck Pagano, failed to maximize the talent he had. It might be Desai’s first coordinator job, but it’s far from his first day in the NFL.

“I’m not a big car guy, so my analogies may not be great, but this is like a tuneup,” Desai said of what is needed on defense. “We’re going to refine some things and make sure our players are playing to their strengths on a consistent basis.

“But we’ve got really good players. We’ve got a really good defense. There was some regression. And we’re going to overcome that.”

Somewhere in there was reality. True, it’s not time to scrap this defense and strip it for parts. But it’s going to take a lot more than a “tuneup” to get the Bears back where Fangio left them.

Desai is correct in pointing out that the defense was good last season. It’s too easy to overreact and say it was a disaster. That’s not the case. It was tied for 13th in fewest points allowed and 11th in yardage despite a floundering offense that perpetually forced the defense back onto the field too soon. The unit was eighth in third-down stops, too.

It was a good defense — about as good as that of either team in the Super Bowl. But good isn’t good enough when the offense is as brutally bad as the Bears’. To even have a chance at making the playoffs, the Bears need their defense to be elite.

The 2018 defense was overwhelming. There were times when the Bears knew they’d win no matter what the offense gave them, and they pulled out victories with point totals of 14, 15 and 16 that season.

Virtually every opposing quarterback had his worst day when he faced them. No one could run on them, either. They were a takeaway machine, and there weren’t any questions about the lack of sacks, poor tackling or why a megastar like Khalil Mack wasn’t dominating.

And getting the Bears back to that is much more difficult than Desai made it sound.

“Obviously, we’re not going to get into the nitty gritty of the personnel details and everything like that, but . . . I think we’ve got a lot of tools in place here,” Desai said. “I think it’s an attractive destination for anyone that wants to come play defense.”

Those are conflicting thoughts, in a way. It probably won’t matter how attractive the Bears look defensively this offseason because there isn’t much wiggle room to change the personnel. If anything, there will be painful cost cutting on that side of the ball — Akiem Hicks’ salary-cap number presents one of many tough decisions — to free up money to fix the offense.

Desai better hope the first part of that sentence, that the tools are in place, is true. He needs it to be.

But for him to be right about that, he’d better have the remedy for Mack’s drop-off in sacks, outside linebacker Robert Quinn’s ineffectiveness, inside linebacker Danny Trevathan’s decline, safety Eddie Jackson’s regression and depth concerns in the secondary.

It’s way more than a tuneup.