Last year, the Chicago Bears were a force to be reckoned with, and largely due to their unrelenting defense. The years prior to it, their unit had been quietly one of the league’s better defenses under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, but the addition of Khalil Mack turned last year’s group into an elite defense. Mack had 12.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and a pick six; Chicago finished third in yards allowed and first in points allowed.
It was such a great season that Fangio, who’s been coaching since 1979, finally got his first shot as a head coach in Denver. He’s in the first year of a rebuild in Denver, and things are looking up for him. But what about the Bears? They brought in Chuck Pagano, former Colts head coach, to run the defense after taking the 2018 season off.
Any worries about the defense regressing under a new coordinator have been more or less put to bed. While the exceptional defenses of the Patriots, Bills, and 49ers have muddled the Bears’ place in defensive rankings, it’s still a fearsome unit that’s been largely responsible for the Bears’ six wins this year. Chicago currently ranks seventh in yards allowed, fourth in points allowed, seventh in run defense, ninth in pass defense, and eighth in DVOA.
Mack hasn’t been as dominant, as he’s been double- and triple-teamed a lot more this year, but is still leading the team with 6.5 sacks, as well as forcing five fumbles. What’s more surprising is that Nick Williams, a journeyman defensive tackle thrust into action this year due to injuries, has responded with six sacks of his own.
But the Bears have also been playing most of the year without two of their best non-Mack defenders, with defensive tackle Akiem Hicks going down in Week 4 and linebacker Danny Trevathan going down in Week 10 after playing through some injuries prior to that. Still, this defense has been very effective in stopping opposing offenses; they’ve only allowed four teams to score 20 or more points all year, and only the Saints have crossed 30 points on this defense.
And there’s an argument to be made that this defense has actually gotten better under Pagano and might be posting better numbers if not for the injuries to Hicks, a truly underrated lineman, and Trevathan, a physically imposing linebacker. And much of this comes down to Pagano’s scheme preferences as they differ from Fangio’s.
Both run out of a base 3-4 defense, but under Fangio, the Bears were consistently one of the lowest blitzing defenses, almost always sending just four pass rushers. Usually that meant the three down linemen and Mack, but occasionally Fangio would drop him into coverage to catch offenses off guard.
Pagano, however, is one of the more aggressive blitzing coordinators in the league, something he carries with him from his time as the Ravens defensive coordinator. And Pagano has gotten his linebacking corps a lot more involved in the pass rush as a result: Mack, Trevathan, and Leonard Floyd all have over 30 blitzes so far this year; by contrast, only Trevathan and fellow inside linebacker Roquan Smith had over 30 blitzes all of last year.
So far through 12 games, Mack has generated 38 pressures on 47 blitzes while Floyd has put up 21 pressures on 39 blitzes. Pagano has used his outside linebackers much more, while relying on inside linebackers like Trevathan, Smith, and now Kwiatkowski more so for run blitzes. Pagano’s aggressive style of play-calling has taken advantage of the Bears’ considerable pass rush talent and helped mask their deficiency in the loss of Hicks.
In the secondary, Pagano has also brought press man coverage that complements the heavy pressure he tends to bring. Chicago’s top two corners, Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, have both allowed north of 66% completion rates, but slot corner Buster Skrine - one of the few defensive backs that Pagano sends on blitzes at all - has been stout in coverage. Facing just three less targets than Amukamara, Skrine is giving up completions on just 57% of those targets and significantly less yards.
The Bears also feature a tenacious safety tandem in HaHa Clinton-Dix and Eddie Jackson, both of whom are allowing under a 57% completion rate when targeted and creating turnovers when they’re given an opportunity. They have three picks and three fumble recoveries between the two of them, and have provided a very stout last line of defense for this secondary.
Moving the ball against this defense has proven difficult, but the Cowboys are probably the most talented offense they’ve faced since the Saints put up 36 points. With Dallas on the road and playing their third game in 12 days, and in less than ideal weather conditions, that gives the Bears defense a slight edge. If the Cowboys want to shake off their bad play of late, the offense will need to find something to work against this unit. That’s much easier said than done, though.