It was reported last week that Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio may leave the team at season's end.
For the record, I'm told there is friction between Fangio and head coach John Fox but that doesn't necessarily mean Fangio will be elsewhere next year.
In the cutthroat, win-now world of the NFL, there's going to be some disagreements among a coaching staff overseeing a 3-10 team. That doesn't guarantee Fangio will take his ball and go home, but only time will tell.
The reason this is such an important issue for the franchise is because Fangio is, by far, the best coach on the current staff. In fact, a case could be made for Fangio as the top defensive coordinator in the NFC, especially considering the accomplishments of Chicago's defense this season.
Through 13 games of a train-wreck campaign, the Bears are no one's radar right now, which is why few even realize the amazing job Fangio has done this year.
Just like last season, the injury bug has hit Chicago's defense hard in 2016. OLB Pernell McPhee missed six games, OLB Lamarr Houston played just two games before landing on IR, ILB Danny Trevathan played nine games before going on IR, first-round rookie OLB Leonard Floyd has missed three games, CB Kyle Fuller hasn't played a snap all season and ILB Jerrell Freeman, the team's leading tackler, is currently serving a four-game suspension.
And those are just the big names. In addition, high-upside rookie CB Deiondre Hall has only played in five games, CB Bryce Callahan has missed three games, DL Will Sutton and DL Ego Ferguson are both on IR, while NT Eddie Goldman has only finished four games.
Yet despite that laundry list of injuries, here are the Bears current defensive rankings:
|Yards Per Game||326.5||7th|
|Rush Yards Per Game||107.1||19th|
|Pass Yards Per Game||219.5||6th|
|1st Downs Per Game||20.0||14th|
|Points Allowed per Game||22.3||15th|
|Sacks Per Pass Attempt||0.08||5th|
Other than rushing yards allowed per game, which is still a respectable 107.1, Chicago's defense is ranked in the top half of the league in every major statistical category. That includes being 7th overall, 6th against the pass and 5th in sacks per pass attempt.
"The most frustrating part about it is our record," Fangio said yesterday. "When you have our record nothing seems rosy. But I think we've made improvements."
Fangio was also quick to point how bare the cupboard was when he came on board last season.
"I think there's only one or two guys that we inherited still playing on defense. And I think those are mainly backups. So there's been a big transition," he said. "I think the scheme thing is overblown because you're playing a lot of nickel right now and the group we inherited wasn't built for the 4-3 either, obviously, by the two years they had prior to us getting here. So they weren't built for anything. We had to start at ground zero."
A resurgent pass rush has been key to the success of the defense, particularly since Pernell McPhee was activated off PUP in Week 7. McPhee has only 2.0 sacks the past seven games but his presence off the edge has been felt by opposing offenses, forcing double teams and creating quality one-on-one matchups for his teammates.
"He has [gotten stronger of late] and I think that's natural from just playing," said Fangio. "I mean, he went from zero to playing. And I think each and every week he's felt more comfortable. He's never had, to my knowledge, any step back in the way his knee has responded and he's played. And he played the most that he's played last week."
Willie Young leads the team with 7.5 sacks, followed by Akiem Hicks and Leonard Floyd, who have 7.0 apiece. The Bears and Vikings are the only two teams in the NFL that have three players with 7.0 or more sacks.
Floyd's 7.0 sacks lead all NFL rookies, just ahead of San Diego's Joey Bosa (6.5), who was selected six picks before Floyd in the first round of this year's draft. Floyd ranks third in franchise history for sacks by a rookie, behind only Mark Anderson (12.0, 2006) and Brian Urlacher (8.0, 2000).
Floyd has played 10 games this year and three of those have been mulit-sack performances. He also owns 8 points - one touchdown and one safety - the most by a Bears defensive rookie dating back to 1960 (excluding special teams scores).
Floyd's touchdown came after stripping Packers QB Aaron Rodgers in Week 7. He's the first Bears rookie to score a defensive TD since David Bass in 2013.
Floyd is one of many promising young rookies Fangio and his coaching staff have developed rapidly this season. Cre'Von LeBlanc, a UDFA the Bears signed just before the start of the season, has been solid more often than not as the team's starting nickelback.
“When he first got here, obviously after the final cut down, he gets here the first week of the regular season, he did put in a lot of time here at night with the coaches trying to get acclimated to our system," Fangio said. "He did work very hard and very diligently for a long time doing that.
"Once he started playing for us, he has played a lot. I think the game’s not too big for him. He likes football. Football comes to him kind of naturally. He’s a good competitor. He doesn’t get overwhelmed emotionally or mentally with any situation. He’s had to play a couple different positions for us, so he’s been a great addition for us.”
Against the Lions, LeBlanc had a team-high 4 pass breakups, one of which he intercepted and returned for a TD.
“He played his technique just right, had good tight coverage and slipped it right at the last second—perfect timing—and plucked it and got it in," said Fangio.
Between LeBlanc and Floyd, the Bears are the only team in the NFL to have two rookies record defensive TDs.
Clearly progress is being made under Fangio. With better health and another strong draft class, the sky is the limit for Chicago's defensive, assuming Fangio sticks around long enough to see it materialize.
Rodgers on Fire
The Green Bay Packers went 1-5 between Weeks 6-11. The only win during that stretch came against the Bears.
Since then, Rodgers has been lights out. Over his past four outings, he's thrown 10 TDs and 0 INTs. Against a stout Seahawks defense last week, Rodgers posted a 150.8 QB rating in a 38-10 blowout win.
"A lot was being made of Aaron Roders at the time, even from their media, but we never saw any difference," head coach John Fox said. "We know what he’s capable of and what he can do. Now that they’ve run off three wins I don’t think they’re talking about that quite as much now."
Fangio reiterated Fox's evaluation of Rodgers.
"He never looked like he was off to me."
Rodgers this season has 32 TDs and just 7 INTs, and he's once again being discussed as a potential MVP candidate. Despite the improvement on defense, the Bears know that shutting down Rodgers is impossible. He's going to get his.
"He’s so good and so confident and he’s played in one system his entire career. He knows and they know as coaches how to adjust," Fangio said. "They’ll either just keep sawing wood at what they’ve been trying and do it a little better or go to another part of their playbook. They play a lot of different personnel groups, so they’ve got a lot of offense to prepare for and when you’re playing a quarterback that’s been in that system for so long, none of it is backlogged to him.”
As a result, keeping Rodgers off the field is the only chance the Bears have of picking up a victory on Sunday.
“He’s probably, arguably the best guy at his position in football. He drives defensive coordinators crazy," said Fox. "They’re familiar with him. We’ve played him a few times. The last one was a little tough because we didn’t generate much offense. I think we played close to 90 snaps on defense the last time we played them. So that’s not ideal to put the ball in that guy’s hands a lot. He probably makes coordinators ... keep late nights trying to defend him just because he extends plays and he’s so accurate and he’s so mobile, as well. I think we did a pretty good job last time considering the number of times he got to trot out there. So that’s part of the deal, is keeping him on the sideline, and that’s the ideal thing to get done.”
Yards After the Catch
In the Week 7 meeting at Green Bay, Rogers threw for 303 yards, throwing the ball 56 times. Most were short passes, using those as an extension of the Packers run game, which was severely banged up in Week 7.
"They're going to catch some of those [short passes]," said Fangio. "You've got to do a great job tackling. All of their guys are good runners after the catch. That's a big point when you play this offense. They do throw it quick, but they do throw it intermediate and deep too, so if they feel like you're creeping up on that quick game they can go over the top."
The good news is that the Bears allow an average of just 4.3 yards after catch, second fewest in the NFL this year.
Adams a Threat
In the first meeting, Packers WR Davante Adams caught 13 passes for 132 yards and 2 TDs. The Bears would like to avoid a repeat performance but that's easier said than done due to the presence of fellow receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
"Adams is a very good route runner, got good size, deceiving speed," Fangio said. "You can see where him and Rodgers have really connected here in the last couple months so he now gives them a third guy in their passing game with Cobb and Nelson. So they're double tough."