Trial by fire for Fangio’s new-look defense

Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has had success against the Packers the past four years. How much of that carries over on Sunday remains to be seen.

The Chicago Bears kick off the 2015 regular season this Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

The Packers have won nine of the last 10 meetings between the two clubs and rolled up 93 points against the Bears in two contests last year. As a result, there’s a lot of trepidation in and around Chicago about the Week 1 fate of a Bears team undergoing a major rebuild.

Yet don’t count defensive coordinator Vic Fangio as one of the concerned.

“I don’t know that I’ll get too wrapped up in the emotions,” Fangio said. “It’s going to tell me where we’re at exactly. Preseason is an indicator but not a great indicator always. So it will give us a measuring stick and see where we’re at heading into Week 2.”

Fangio has been installing his 3-4 defense since May and has spent countless hours working with and watching film of his players. Yet even he doesn’t know what to expect from his defense on Sunday.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “Obviously they’ve been pretty bad here for two straight years defensively. We’ve made some changes but that’s an on-going process. It’s not an overnight thing. You just have to keep building week-to-week. Not look at the season as whole but look at it one game at a time, one series at a time, one play at a time and make your strides as you go.”

With Fangio in charge of the defense, the 49ers beat the Packers in three of four meetings the past four years. Yet that was in San Francisco, where the talent level on defense far exceeded that on Chicago’s current roster.

For Fangio and his current group of 4-3 players trying to play in a 3-4, the margin for error will be razor thin in Week 1 against a Packers offense that led the league in scoring last season (30.4 points per game), led by perennial MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers.

“With a great quarterback like him, there is no one key [to stopping him] because there is no one way to stop a great quarterback like himself,” said Fangio. “Some people would say pressure him, but he can hurt you there. Drop a lot of guys, he can hurt you there. That’s why he’s a great quarterback. There’s not one way to play him. You’ve just got to mix it up.”

Fangio’s unit is still in its incubatory stage, which will limit his playbook and add another layer of difficulty for the defense on Sunday.

“We’re a new group with a new system, so we’re limited that way,” he said. “I may have coached against [Rodgers] in those [San Francisco] games but none of these players did it within this system. So we’re back to ground zero on that.”

Therein lies the toughest challenge for Fangio, trying to keep Rodgers under wraps with a first-year defense and a vanilla playbook, not to mention a lack of talent at a number of positions.

And we haven’t even touched on Green Bay’s rushing attack, which finished 11th and 6th overall the past two years respectively. It’s a run game led by Eddie Lacy, who has rushed for more than 1,100 yards his first two years with the Packers.

“They’ve got a good running game going,” Fangio said. “He’s one of the top backs in the league. He’s got a rare combination of power and elusiveness. The guy can jump-cut. He’s a hard guy to tackle because you load up to tackle a big man and he can jump cut one way or the other; or you get ready to react to a shifty move and he plows through you. So he’s got a great combination.

“He’s a great back and they’ve done a great job of relying more on the running game and having more balance in their offense. They actually run the ball a pretty good bit more on early downs.”

The Bears caught a break with the season-ending injury to receiver Jordy Nelson, who had 18 catches for 260 yards combined in the two meetings last year.

“I think any time you lose a terrific football player, it's an adjustment and that's the way we look at it,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said on conference call with Bears media.

The elevation of receiver Randall Cobb is part of that adjustment and ,even with a sprained shoulder, he presents the toughest challenge for Chicago’s secondary.

“He’s a really good runner after the catch. He’s really quick. He’s a good route runner,” said Fangio. “The quarterback has a lot of comfort with him throwing him the ball. And he’s a dynamic player. They’ll line him up in the backfield and he’ll become a running back all the sudden. And they’ve always done that a pretty good bit against us. He’s just very versatile and very talented and a good player.”

Yet with a player like Rodgers, shutting down Cobb won’t equate to shutting down Green Bay’s passing attack.

“The one thing about this offense, Rodgers spreads the ball around,” Fangio said. “There isn’t one guy you’ve got to stop. You stop one receiver, he’ll throw it to the other one. He’s going to run their offense and throw to the guy based on what he sees. He doesn’t have a particular favorite. He just runs the offense. If you focus most of your attention on one guy, he’ll be throwing it other places.”

While in San Francisco, Fangio had plenty of success against the Packers, which includes a 2013 playoff win at Lambeau Field. Yet he’s not longer on the West Coast, and considering the handicaps he inherited here in the Midwest, he’ll need to put on a coaching clinic if the Bears stand a chance of stopping Rodgers and the Packers on Sunday.

Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of 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.

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