With new defensive coordinator Sean Desai, the Bears’ style is almost certain to resemble the incredible defense they played under his boss, Vic Fangio, three seasons ago.
But it won’t be an exact replica. The fact that Desai was trained by Fangio was part of what led coach Matt Nagy to promote him, but there surely were offshoots and variations that popped into Desai’s mind during their four seasons together. There will be a heavy Fangio influence, but the system is Desai’s design.
‘‘Vic’s been tremendous for me,’’ said Desai, who also credited former University of Miami coach Al Golden and others for teaching him. ‘‘The philosophies we’re trying to build here as a defense, there’s roots of everybody I’ve worked with.
‘‘Everybody’s voice is a little bit in there, and I think that’s the benefit of it. That’s why I’m my own person. We’re going to try to do this thing the way these players want to do it and the way these coaches want to do it.’’
Desai echoed Nagy’s call to leave the past in the past. The Bears don’t want to obsess over trying to recapture their 2018 defensive magic, nor do they want to accept the stagnation of the last two seasons as their reality going forward.
That being said, Desai elicits memories of Fangio. While he wants to establish his own brand, six months ago he referred to Fangio as ‘‘one of the smartest football minds I’ve ever been around’’ and said he was ‘‘really fortunate’’ to have studied under him.
‘‘He’ll say something, and it will sound just like Vic,’’ general manager Ryan Pace said this week. ‘‘That’s a really good thing.’’
Fangio set the standard in 2018, when the Bears’ defense carried the team to an NFC North title at 12-4, before he left to take the head-coaching job with the Broncos.
The Bears were a terrifying takeaway machine. No one could throw on them, no one could run on them and no one could score on them. Safety Eddie Jackson was an All-Pro, and outside linebacker Khalil Mack looked like he was worth every penny of his $141 million contract.
Nagy’s demand of Desai is that he restore it. All of it.
The core personnel is intact, led by Mack. And even with its modest decline in the last two seasons, the Bears’ defense is still good. Nagy won a combined six games in 2019-20 in which his offense scored 20 points or fewer. It just isn’t what it used to be.
In 2018, Fangio’s last season, the defense was so overpowering that it made people believe the Bears’ offense was decent. Defensive touchdowns and takeaways that set up the offense in field-goal range boosted the team from 22.4 to 26.3 points per game.
The current offense could use a similar lift.
For Desai, just as it was for Fangio, the pass rush is paramount. The 2018 Bears were third in sacks and second in quarterback pressures, and they did it without much blitzing. They were 17th and 23rd, respectively, last season. That led to them allowing a 94.9 opponent passer rating, the third-worst in franchise history.
The Bears also ranked 25th in takeaways last season. Their pass rush in 2018 led to 36 takeaways, a number matched by only three teams in the last decade.
Management left Desai quite a puzzle to solve when it comes to fixing that pass rush and, by extension, the defense at large. Outside linebacker Robert Quinn is on a $70 million contract and delivered only two sacks while playing 51% of the snaps last season. (For context, Mack played 83%, and Quinn was at 75% or higher in his prime.) Plus, there are injury concerns about him and he rather would be playing defensive end.
‘‘I’ve got an open-door policy, and the players know that,’’ Desai said. ‘‘I jokingly tell them there’s a suggestion box right outside my door. Doesn’t mean every suggestion is going to be taken, but every suggestion will be under consideration.’’
Solving the Quinn issue would help clear the way for Mack to re-establish himself as one of the most dominant pass rushers in the NFL. He ranks a respectable 13th in the league with a combined 17œ sacks in the last two seasons, but the Bears are paying for much more than respectable.
They committed nearly 22% of their salary cap to Mack, Quinn and defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and cut costs elsewhere — cornerback, for one — to afford them. They’re counting on Desai to make that pay off in a way former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano couldn’t.
Pagano had four decades in football, including 11 as a coordinator or head coach between college and the pros. Desai is a first-timer at 38. It’s a monumental task, and the jobs of virtually everyone on the staff are on the line. But if Desai has the right combination of new ideas and Fangio hand-me-downs, the pieces are there to make this defense fearsome again.