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Potential Coaches' Impact on Bears Defense

With 11 candidates so far at head coach, the impact each could have on a Bears defense might alter the entire look of what has been a team strength.

The great Bears strength through four years of Matt Nagy's stagnant offense has been the defense formed by Vic Fangio and carried on under Chuck Pagano and Sean Desai.

Desai brought the Bears back into the top 10 this year after a slide last year as they finished sixth overall despite a dip to 23rd against the run.

With a new head coach coming to Halas Hall, the possibility exists their one great strength could be drastically altered. A head coach from the defensive side could want an entirely different alignment. An offensive coach with experience might want to revert back to an old defensive system their former teams used or might have defensive assistants in mind who would play a different style of defense.

The Bears went from the 4-3 defense they played since the late 1950s to a 3-4 look in 2015 and eventually perfected this in 2018 under Fangio. The current hunt for a head coach could impact whether they remain on this course or switch back to a 4-3.

If this happens, the impact could be greatest up front and at linebacker, as different types of defensive linemen are necessary to run the 4-3 than the 3-4, and different types of edge rushers are also required.

They would need more linebackers, as they've been getting by with two and sometimes one linebacker inside. A 4-3 would require a weakside (Will) and strong side (Sam) linebacker to go with the Mike inside. There just aren't enough regular linebackers on the roster at this time and they'd need to devote free agent money or a draft pick to stocking this position. 

The Bears would be fine with Roquan Smith inside regardless of system. He's not as big as some of the classic 4-3 middle linebackers, but big enough. Sometimes he's playing the one linebacker spot in their current dime defense, anyway.  At 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, he's bigger than hall-of-famer Mike Singletary and he has the speed to drop into zone coverage much like Brian Urlacher did, even without the height Urlacher had.

On the edge, it wouldn't affect Robert Quinn. In fact, he'd probably enjoy it as he was a 4-3 player when he came to the Bears and had to adapt. Trevis Gipson was a college 4-3 end and had to adapt to a new position and he wouldn't mind this. As for their main pass rusher, Khalil Mack's last three years and biggest sack season came when he was playing end in Oakland's 4-3 rather than outside linebacker in a 3-4. So it would appear the Bears are set up at this position regardless.

Another change could occur if they brought on  a coach with man-to-man coverage tendencies over zone. The Bears have been synonymous with zone coverage since Lovie Smith was coach, though Vic Fangio's style of zone is much different than the shell look the Bears used during their last run to a Super Bowl. They would need more defensive backs with strong man-to-man coverage skills like Jaylon Johnson possesses, though they really need help in this regard anyway.

Any number of defensive coaches might want more of a box safety look than the Bears have deployed since 2015.

Here is how candidates might impact what the Bears do on defense.

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Todd Bowles

Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator uses a 3-4 with players size-wise similar to what the Bears have. The biggest real differences would be in requiring more man-to-man pass coverage and also needing some inside linebacker help with blitz ability. The Buccaneers led the NFL in blitzes at 40.8% of defensive snaps. The Bears were only 21st at 22.6%. Bowles loves disguises in the secondary but this is something the Bears have done extensively all along. They would just become more of an attacking, gambling defense with Bowles.

Doug Pederson

As an offensive side hire, his defensive approach wouldn't necessarily be critical and he could retain what they've done. However, he did have a 4-3 in Philadelphia and they used rather distinct techniques. Their defensive coordinator was Jim Schwartz, he of the wide-9 look at the edge. Trevis Gipson might look good in a wide-nine approach. It's hard to say how Khalil Mack would fit into it, but then again Mack is so good it's hard to see him failing to fit into any scheme. Schwartz did use more man-to-man coverage than the Bears have. And, coincidentally, Schwartz would be available to become a defensive coordinator as he currently merely has a senior defensive assistant's role with Tennessee.

Brian Flores

Figure on something straight from the Patriots handbook because he came out of the Bill Belichick system. The Patriots have used both 3-4 and 4-3 but Flores had them in 3-4 with plenty of nickel coverage. What they really did more than anything else was blitz and cover man-to-man as the Patriots have done so often. They blitzed about a third of the time.

Dan Quinn

Quinn oversaw the Legion of Boom in Seattle and likes cover-3 in zone or man-to-man coverage. The Bears currently play a lot of cover-3 anyway. Quinn's defenses were known for four-man fronts, so the edges would face change. But as mentioned, all three of their top three edges seem suited to playing 4-3 end or 3-4 edge.

Matt Eberflus

He changed the Colts from a 3-4 defense under Pagano to a 4-3 defense, and if hired it could be anticipated he would do the same in Chicago. The change Eberflus has gone through with Colts is not in formation but in coverage. He started out with strong cover-2 zone tendencies and adapted cover-3 like the Bears use extensively, but also blended in some single-high safety look. The Bears are not big on this at all. Players most affected might be Mack, if he is coming from a down position, and also Eddie Jackson because the Bears rarely use the single-high much.

Leslie Frazier

Frazier's base is 4-3 and he has had exposure to a wide variety of approaches over the years, as a Jim Johnson and Tony Dungy disciple, to a player under Buddy Ryan. He seems to have settled more on a more conservative approach with zone coverage and less blitzing. The difference could be at defensive tackle/end. The Bears deploy 330-pound Akiem Hicks and 302-pound Bilal Nichols at end. They've always leaned to bigger interior defensive linemen. The Bills have a few 280-pounders to get in gaps rather than lean on a two-gap approach. Also the Bears would need to bring in few inside linebackers who can both cover and play the run.  They need to add inside linebackers anyway, but need even more for a 4-3 approach. The Bears may need more of a box safety at the strong safety position of they go with him.

Dennis Allen

His base is 4-3 but the Saints rarely are in it and just like with the Bears defense now their tendency is for nickel or dime coverage with a four-man rush. The difference is the type of players. They are not as dependent on the massive interior line defenders like the Bears. It might take acquiring a few leaner, faster defensive linemen and a linebacker who excels in pass coverage. The Saints will leave their defensive backs on an island more, so DBs better man-to-man coverage would be necessary. Allen has become less of a blitzer by quite a bit this year, hovering around the top 10 in blitzes to this year blitzing less even than the Bears. They would prefer not blitzing as much but had to do it to improve their pass rush.

Nathaniel Hackett

Though an offensive coach, he has the defense's backs because he believes strongly in the running game. The Packers offensive coordinator has been with two teams that had strong, aggressive 3-4 defenses -- the current Packers and the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars. Keeping Sean Desai as defensive coordinator and maintaining status quo might be best served with Hackett on board.

Jim Caldwell

He has never been associated much with strong defense, although it must be noted that the first Lions team he coached had the No. 2 defense in the league when Teryl Austin was defensive coordinator, and No. 1 against the run. Their emphasis has revolved around a 4-3 with cover-2 from the Tony Dungy background. Austin is available to be a coordinator again. He is in Pittsburgh as a defensive backs coach. 

Byron Leftwich

It's difficult to determine what Leftwich would do defensively as an offensive coordinator who doesn't even have much experience at this, but as such he would seem better for keeping Desai and status quo.

Brian Daboll

Although and offensive coordinator, Daboll has extensive background with the New England success formula and had one season at Alabama under Nick Saban, who qualifies as a college version of the Bill Belichick movement. You would think some of that man-to-man defensive approach with a hybrid style up front has rubbed off on him. It's still difficult to say but if he hires defensive side out of what he learned in Buffalo then it might be more 4-3. 

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