After engineering a turnaround following a season- and career-opening disaster at Los Angles, Sean Desai is about to take on the ultimate test for Bears defensive coordinators.
Finding a way to stop Aaron Rodgers is always a major challenge for Bears defensive coordinators, and in Desai's case he could have a little more help than some others had.
Desai's predecessor failed at it, although in his very first game Chuck Pagano's defense did a pretty good job of it. They held Rodgers and the Packers to 10 points in the 2019 season opener and still lost. Then it quickly began to spiral out of control.
The Bears gave up 41 and 35 points in two games last year against Rodgers, and Pagano almost seemed to have become a football Capt. Ahab to Rodgers as the great white whale.
Rodgers had Pagano talking to himself. Well, actually Pagano was talking to media members, which can be like talking to yourself.
But Pagano was at wit's end shaking his head about how Rodgers was making it impossible. He complained that Rodgers is so sharp he stands back in the huddle and watches the sideline for Bears substitution patterns to know their defensive scheme.
"He knows what the hell you're going to be in," said Ahab, er ... Pagano.
Then Pagano sounded a bit like Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese in "The Terminator," as he explained what cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger really is to Linda Hamilton.
"He finds the matchup he wants and then he exploits it," Pagano said forcefully of Rodgers.
And he will not stop ... ever.
Desai comes from the Vic Fangio coaching tree and the Broncos head coach did manage to beat Rodgers twice when he was Bears defensive coordinator. Fangio did it under John Fox and with the offense of Adam Gase providing what little it could in support in 2015. Fangio's 2018 defense held Rodgers and a struggling Packers offense to 17 when the Bears clinched the division at Soldier Field.
Other than those two games, there has only been sporadic Bears success at neutralizing Rodgers dating back to the Lovie Smith regime, as a 21-5 record starting against Chicago indicates.
So the Bears have to hope Desai can do against the Packers what he did against the Lions, Raiders, Bengals and actually—for most of the game until his defense nearly collapsed from exhaustion—the Browns. Cleveland had only 13 points through three quarters and the Bears defense had been on the field 28 minutes to 17 for the Bears offense at that point.
Now in his role as manager of the full team rather than offensive play caller, Nagy loved what he heard from his defensive coordinator in Sunday's win over the Raiders.
"I, again, just being on the headset and listening to him I thought he was, he was really on to being able to see where they were at and predict what they were going to do," Nagy said of Desai. "And that's a credit to that whole coaching staff and Sean really looking into it and, cause that's a great offensive scheme and great players. ... But I just feel like, big picture, he had a good feel on how he wanted that thing to go and he stuck to it.
"He stayed patient in a lot of different ways. I think it's impressive."
Desai could benefit from having former Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine on staff as an advisor. The offense could, as well, but also the defense. Pettine knows where the bones are buried, so to speak. He coached in practice against Rodgers under two head coaches and was around the offensive coaches and players.
"As coaches, you look at people that are familiar to the staffs that you're playing against, so that's normal for every team, and obviously with him being there the last several years as their D-coordinator there's a balance to it," Nagy said. "So, he'll have his input on what he sees and what he thinks and that sort of thing. But if it's something we think we want to use, we're obviously going to use it."
Desai and his defense have stood out so far without such an edge. They've broken into the top 10 now in yards allowed, ninth now and seventh in fewest points allowed.
And on Sunday, they seemed to solve one of their few remaining problems.
"The biggest thing for us was finishing," linebacker Roquan Smith said after Sunday's win. "Coach Sean practiced on finishing. We know we was getting outscored in the fourth quarter, so we just wanted to dominate today and play a full four-quarter game."
If they can play four full quarters, hook Rodgers and reel him in, Nagy won't be the only one taking notice of Desai. He'll command league-wide respect.