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Don't Blame Sean Desai's Defense

There are some problems with the job done by the Bears defense this season, but defensive coordinator Sean Desai rates another chance if they hire a new head coach because of the amount of pressure against his side of the ball.

Before the Bears hired Matt Nagy in 2018, they also took a good look at hiring their own defensive coordinator as head coach.

Vic Fangio certainly deserved a look and was retained as coordinator under Nagy, and in retrospect it's difficult to see how the team could have been worse off with their defensive leader as the head coach.

The popular assumption is the Bears go with a head coach who has an offensive background. With Justin Fields' development a key goal for any new head coach, it's difficult to imagine the Bears not hiring a new head coach with an offensive background.

In either case they would need to make a decision on whether to retain Sean Desai as defensive coordinator, unless the new head coach came from the defensive side and he wanted to run his own defense.

Barring some sort of complete breakdown over the final five games against the offenses of the Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings, Desai looks to have done at least a respectable job of holding together a defense in difficult circumstances.

Bears Defense vs. the Pass

They rank ninth overall and sixth against the pass. The No. 6 ranking against the pass is skewed by the fact they've faced the second-fewest attempts, a fact resulting from 1) fear of their pass rush, which leads the NFL in sacks per pass attempt; 2) their own defense's inability to stop the run. The Bears are 23rd against the run and only seven teams have faced more rushing attempts so opponents have found a soft spot in the Bears middle.

The fact Desai turned around a pass rush which went nowhere under Chuck Pagano, and did it in a year when he had Khalil Mack for only seven games and really only a couple games when he was healthy is a real credit to what the Bears managed to do and especially outside linebackers coach Bill Shuey.

Can't Stop the Run

It would be easy to blame their problems stopping the run on personnel/injury issues. They have had Akiem Hicks healthy for only six full games. He remains out with an ankle injury. Eddie Goldman never returned from an opt-out as the Goldman of old, although coaches have tried to say he gradually has worked back to his former level of play. Bilal Nichols had a rough start to the season and has picked it up. He had four tackles, including one for loss in each of the last two games after averaging 2.5 tackles over the first 10 games.

The other keys to a run defense are the linebackers and Roquan Smith hasn't had a sidekick who could be labeled more than the journeyman level. Danny Trevathan was never healthy the whole year and Alec Ogletree was claimed off the NFL scrap heap.

The Big Problem

The one real problem with what Desai has done has been the lack of takeaways. It's a problem Pagano's defense had, as well, but not quite to this extent.

Matt Nagy even talked about this Monday after ripping his own offense for four interceptions.

"I think what's important is emphasizing that we have to get turnovers on defense as well, however that goes," Nagy said. "You go back and we want to really be able to emphasize getting takeaways on the defensive side to help us get short fields on the other side."

With five interceptions, the Bears are in danger of breaking the franchise record for a season of eight. Even worse, they have one interception from a cornerback this year.

The real problem here appears to be personnel and not scheme, although there could be some of this leaking in as well.

The lack of a viable starting left cornerback or slot cornerback has left the Bears covering for weak spots in their regular scheme by moving Jaylon Johnson all over the field.

While cornerbacks like the idea of being lockdown types, Johnson hadn't really established himself at this level of play. He's just the best they have and they're making him play a lot of head-up on the best receiver when the ideal way to play this scheme is in disguised zones without matching up all the time. It's what Fangio did when the Bears made 27 interceptions in 2018.

Blame this one on GM Ryan Pace. Kyle Fulle was cut, and while he hasn't been the same player with Denver he once was in Chicago, Pace failed to replace him with anyone who should be an NFL starter.

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Right now Artie Burns is struggling at it. The slot cornerback spot has been a problem since Bryce Callahan was allowed to leave in free agency. Neither Buster Skrine nor Duke Shelley have risen to a level close to Callahan's.

Pace might not have been able to match Fuller's huge cap hit regardless of what he did, but finding a suitable replacement shouldn't have been as difficult as they made it. It's obvious Kindle Vildor has a long way to go from passer ratings against when targeted of 131.2 and 138.8 the last two seasons. His replacement, Burns, owns a passer rating against barely better than Vildor at 133.9.

Bottom Line

Desai deserves at least a good look as a returning defensive coordinator, unless a new head coach has someone he's certain can do better, or he is wed to a different style of defense.

The performance by Desai has been good enough for retention, but there is always something to be said for a complete overhaul when change comes to a team.

The Bears have been playing basically the same defensive scheme since 2015 and it can become predictable even as the coordinators change.

The lack of turnovers is their biggest flaw, and the second-biggest trouble is run defense.

Both of those can be traced back to lack of real pressure. 

It's true the Bears are only 24th in the percentage of pass plays using blitzes, and they are only 28th at forcing quarterbacks into hurrying throws according to NFL official stat partner Sportradar. Still, their high number of sacks does affect play calling as well as how and when a passer throws a ball. So there should be more turnovers with better personnel.

Real pressure is not entirely the result of pass rush and defensive scheme. Real pressure against an offense comes from knowing it must score because the opponent could also score or does score. Offenses will try to do what they can't do or shouldn't do because they must score to keep up, and then they turn over the ball.

In this regard, the Bears defense has had four years of fighting against their own offense in addition to opposing offenses.

The Bears defensively start drives from the 28th worst field position in the league, and Sunday was a prime example when Arizona started five times in Bears territory, four after turnovers, and all four inside the Bears 29-yard line.

Desai's defense might have some problems to address in the future, but the biggest problem the Bears defense has is the pressure applied by their own offense's inability to score more than 16 points a game.
Twitter: BearDigest@BearsOnMaven