Between 1979-2001 Chicago Bears head coach John Fox was a defensive coach at both the collegiate and professional levels. He coached defensive backs for 24 years before two stints as defensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Raiders (1994-1995) and New York Giants (1997-2001).
Yet despite his extensive experience coaching the defensive side of the ball, Fox will not be micro-managing his defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio.
“I'm the head coach because I manage the game, so I'm involved in the game plan, all that kind of stuff, and really in all three phases,” Fox said, “but Vic's in charge of the defense. He's done a tremendous job in this league for a long time and we expect the same here.”
Fangio’s career as a football coach also began in 1979 and he first became an NFL defensive coordinator in 1995. Like Fox, he’s not lacking in experience.
“[I admire] the fact that [his track record] is long and it's very successful, at different places, different positions. He even went back to college for a minute and made an impact,” said Fox. “I use the term ‘skins on the wall.’ He's done that, developed a lot of very, very good players. He's a good teacher. He's got a good system and he's put together a good staff to help him.”
Fangio is coming off a four-year run in San Francisco where he guided the league’s most consistently dominant defense. In each season between 2011-2014, the 49ers finished Top 5 or better in the NFL in total yards allowed, passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed and points against.
Yet in Chicago, he’s inheriting a defense that in 2014 ranked 31st in points against, 30th in passing yards allowed and 30th in total yards allowed.
“It was told to me early on when I got here that they’ve given up more yards and points the last two years than anybody in the league. So we’re going to have to make our own building blocks,” Fangio said. “I think any time you come to a new place, the first job is to make the players you already have better. That’s our job, no. 1.”
Yet therein lies the challenge, as the defense has been built under the structure of a 4-3 throughout franchise history. So for a player like Jared Allen, who has played his entire career as a 4-3 defensive end, learning a 3-4 system at outside linebacker involves a steep learning curve.
“He did well in the minicamp we had here and I think he was excited about it, “said Fangio. “Like I told him, I think he can have a rebirth to his career here playing a little bit of a new position.”
Only two outside linebackers on the roster, Pernell McPhee and Sam Acho, have experience playing that position in a 3-4. Along with Allen are OLB newcomers Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, David Bass and Cornelius Washington.
“They’ve done well so far. We’ve got some guys that have been linebackers in their career. Acho’s been a linebacker in his career. Pernell has kind of moved around in his career but he’s had some experience out there,” Fangio said. “It’s not as hard as everybody thinks. It’s a slow-growing process. A lot of the things that look hard to them now will eventually be easy. But we’ve got to work through that.
“We expect a good pass rush from them, so that’s no different than being an end. They’ll be doing things they’re used to doing as an end, except they’re going to be doing it standing up and at the end of the line. It’s called a 3-4 defense, but in some ways you can call it a 5-2. We like bigger guys out there. I don’t foresee it being a major problem, although there’s a lot of learning and growing that has to take place.”
The biggest area of growth will be in pass coverage, where there is a dearth of experience at OLB.
“They’ve got to be able to function in coverage a little bit,” said Fangio. “We’re not going to have them doing tough jobs in coverage. Some of them can be, and evolve to be, depending upon the play.”
Luckily for the outside linebackers, the NFL’s pass heavy tendencies lead to numerous nickel and dime packages in every contest. In fact, most teams deploy sub packages on more than 50 percent of their snaps. In those sets, the outside linebackers revert back to defensive ends.
“In the NFL today, you play more nickel than you actually play base,” Fangio said. “For some teams it’s 65-75 percent of the time. They’ll be playing their normal position then. So it’s not as drastic of a change as you might think.”
Outside linebacker isn’t the only area in which considerable changes will take place, as inside linebacker is a whole other animal in a 3-4. Chicago’s top four ILBs – Mason Foster, Jon Bostic, Shea McClellin and Christian Jones – have not played a single snap in a 3-4 defense during their NFL careers.
Yet for Fangio, that collective lack of experience isn’t an issue.
“It’s not that important. Football is football. 3-4, 4-3, it’s still seven guys up front, it’s just how you organize it and the mechanics of it. So I don’t think the experience is a big thing. A defensive lineman playing the 3-technique in our defense is very similar to what they do in a 4-3. So experience helps but it’s not the ultimate.”
While Foster and Bostic may end up the Week 1 starters, Fangio believes in the potential of both McClellin and Jones inside.
“I think McClellin and Christian Jones have some talent and they should be able to find a spot in our defense somewhere,” he said. “Jones has got good size. He’s got good athletic ability. He’s a young, eager guy and football is important to him. I think he’s got a bright future if he can develop.”
McClellin played mostly outside linebacker in college yet the Bears are going to give him a legitimate shot inside before shifting him outside, where there are already too many bodies.
“He has been hindered by being moved around,” said Fangio. “I think he’s got a chance to be a good inside linebacker. We’re going to give him a full opportunity and full chance to learn the position so we can evaluate him and see if that’s a good spot for him. When he came out of college he was a versatile guy. He played a lot of different positions and maybe now it’s time to lock him down into hopefully an inside linebacker spot. If it doesn’t work out, maybe we move him back out, but I want to see him at inside linebacker for a while.”
With all of the question marks surrounding Chicago’s linebackers, it makes sense for Fangio to limit dramatic changes this season and ease this group into the new scheme, which is why he plans on incorporating many 4-3 principles into his system.
“We play a lot of 4-3 principles within a 3-4. We're not always going to be in a guy over the tackle, a guy head-up on the center. We'll be in an under- or an over-looking front also, so it's kind of a hybrid.”
How his linebackers take to the new system, something we’ll be paying close attention to throughout minicamps and training camp, will go a long way toward a potential defensive turnaround in Chicago this season.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.