1st-and-10: Sean Desai’s impact looks real
Of all the training-camp storylines that sound so good in August, the notion that the Bears’ first-year defensive coordinator will be an upgrade and boost a stagnant defense has legs as much as any of them.
The Bears’ line issues threaten to derail every potential improvement they are hoping for on offense before the season even starts.
Receiver Darnell Mooney’s giant leap, tight end Cole Kmet’s breakout season and running back David Montgomery reaching the next level aren’t likely to happen if linemen Teven Jenkins, James Daniels and Germain Ifedi are out. Quarterback Andy Dalton looks like an upgrade over Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles in the early going of training camp, but even that upgrade might be muted, if not imperceptible, if the Bears have line issues similar to the ones they had last season.
That said, even with an unusual spate of injuries that doesn’t bode well at this point, there is one camp narrative that seems likely to have legs: the idea that first-year coordinator Sean Desai will provide a boost for a once-elite defense that lost its bite in two seasons under Chuck Pagano.
That doesn’t mean the Bears will return to their dominant 2018 form under Vic Fangio. Even Fangio would have been challenged to maintain that level of destruction had he not left to take the Broncos’ head-coaching job. But Desai’s influence, which seems to have breathed new life into this defense, still has a chance to increase the takeaways and sacks it was missing under Pagano.
Buying camp storylines is an occupational hazard of covering the NFL. In 2019, many of us thought Trubisky and the Bears’ offense was struggling in camp because it was going against a stellar defense coming off a dominant season. As it turned out, it actually was struggling because it wasn’t very good.
We’ve only had a cursory look at the Bears so far — most practices in shorts, key players such as safety Eddie Jackson and nose tackle Eddie Goldman missing, no outside competition yet — but Desai’s approach as a young, Ivy League-educated guy providing a fresh voice with new ideas, as well as being a coach who came of age under Fangio and knows the strengths and weaknesses of these players, is a clear winner as the best camp narrative of 2021.
2. Coach Matt Nagy’s revelation that he wouldn’t let Desai leave the Bears’ staff when Fangio was hired by the Broncos would be an interesting twist if Desai revitalizes the defense.
At this point, it appears Nagy erred by letting outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley go with Fangio. Staley became the Rams’ defensive coordinator in 2019 and turned that defense into a juggernaut, from 17th to first in the NFL in points allowed and from 13th to first in yards allowed.
More pointedly, edge rusher Leonard Floyd had 10.5 sacks in Staley’s defense — more than triple the three he had under Pagano (and more than double the four he had under Fangio in 2018). Staley now is the head coach of the Chargers.
Nagy made the unusual move of prioritizing the quality-control coach. It might turn out he knew what he was doing all along.
3. Senior defensive assistant Mike Pettine figures into the Desai equation, as well. The senior analyst who provides another set of eyes is sometimes dubious — see Childress, Brad — but Pettine’s experience supporting a rookie coordinator seems like a workable dynamic.
Pettine, a former Browns head coach, was let go by the Packers because of playoff failures. But Pettine’s defenses in general were pretty good, and he often won the battle on Sundays — including in games against Nagy and the Bears.
Under Pettine, the Packers were 13th in points allowed and ninth in yards allowed last season. Under Pagano, the Bears were 14th and 11th. Between Desai and Joe Barry, it’ll be interesting to see whether the Bears or Packers got the better upgrade.
4. Newcomer Alec Ogletree seems to know Nagy’s offense better than many of the offensive players do. The veteran linebacker, a seven-year NFL starter with the Rams and Giants, had six interceptions in his first four practices with the Bears last week after being signed Wednesday.
Ogletree had two interceptions, including a pick-six on the second play from scrimmage, against Chase Daniel and the Bears in the Giants’ 30-27 victory in 2018 and intercepted Trubisky in the end zone in the Bears’ 19-14 victory in 2019. So Ogletree has nine interceptions in six days against Nagy’s offense.
5. Rookie left tackle Jenkins’ back injury is looking more and more ominous with every practice he misses. The Bears haven’t given any specifics about the injury, haven’t given any updates and don’t have a timetable.
Jenkins didn’t play in Oklahoma State’s final four games last season after suffering a hip injury, and coach Mike Gundy noted Jenkins was dealing with back pain at the time he opted out.
It’s reminiscent of Chris Williams’ ill-fated rookie season in 2008. A first-round draft pick slated to start at left tackle, Williams suffered ‘‘back spasms’’ during individual drills on the first day of practice. He ended up having surgery for a herniated disc, didn’t return until Week 9 and played sparingly as a rookie. Williams had played through a herniated disc at Vanderbilt, but the Bears weren’t concerned it would be an issue — until it was.
6. If Jenkins remains out, fellow rookie tackle Larry Borom likely will contend with newly activated Elijah Wilkinson to start at left tackle whenever Borom returns from the concussion protocol. Borom, a fifth-round draft pick, impressed coaches enough in a brief stint at first-team left tackle before suffering the concussion for them to consider him a contender for the starting job — and not just by attrition.
‘‘He’s a contender because of what he did [in practice],’’ offensive line coach Juan Castillo said. ‘‘He got in there with the first team and did a great job against a good [defense]. We’re very fortunate to go against a defensive line we’re going against.
‘‘He’s been doing a good job on the right side, too. He went [to the left side] and did a really good job, so that gives me confidence that he’s in a dogfight for that left-tackle position.’’
7. It remains to be seen whether rookie Justin Fields develops into an elite-level quarterback who gets first-round production out of mid-round receivers. But keep an eye on Rodney Adams, a fifth-round pick by the Vikings in 2017, who has developed an early connection with Fields on the second-team offense while making plays for Dalton, too.
The 6-1, 189-pound Adams spent last season on the Bears’ practice squad.
8. Defensive tackle Angelo Blackson looks like an under-the-radar offseason acquisition that will pay dividends.
Blackson had a dominant stretch in a live drill last week — two safeties and a pressure that led to another safety. And even though it was against an overmatched second-team offensive line, Blackson’s NFL résumé indicates he’ll be effective when the bell rings. He had 2œ sacks, eight quarterback hits and four tackles for loss in 16 games (nine starts) with the Cardinals last season.
9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Steelers offensive lineman Rashaad Coward, who started at right guard in the Hall of Fame Game on Thursday, could be in a battle for the full-time starting job with Kevin Dotson, who just returned from an injury.
10. Bear-ometer: 8-9 — at Rams (L); vs. Bengals (W); at Browns (L); vs. Lions (W); at Raiders (L); vs. Packers (L); at Buccaneers (L); vs. 49ers (L); at Steelers (L); vs. Ravens (L); at Lions (L); vs. Cardinals (W); at Packers (W); vs. Vikings (W); at Seahawks (W); vs. Giants (W); at Vikings (W).