Stop trying to make a “Bears defense returning to their 2018 form” storyline happen. It’s NOT going to happen.
The parallels between Sean Desai and Vic Fangio have been drawn many times this offseason. Seemingly every time a defensive player has taken the podium this summer, a question has been asked about how the team can get back to its swaggy, touchdown-scoring days. But the Bears are over it. They just want to think about 2021.
“Clearly that 2018 team and defense was something special,” said Jaylon Johnson. “I feel like we’re tired of hearing, ‘When can we get back to that? When can we get back to that?’ So I mean, just for us, it’s about being who we are and playing tough, sound, physical football each and every week. That’s how we attack practice, that’s how we attack everything we’re doing.”
If they do that, Johnson believes they can erase any doubts people may have about what type of defense they are. Maybe then, the questions comparing this year to 2018 will stop too.
“We're not going to live in the past,” said Matt Nagy. “That's been made very clear and not just from me but from Sean as well. That's what I love about Sean. Sean doesn't care about that. This is going to be Sean Desai's defense, and whatever scheme that is and how we do it, the players know that and they've known that from the very first meeting. Is there things we can take away from the mentality we had that I loved in 2018? 100%... But we're literally going to try and make our own mark this year. That was the past, and that was a great year, but we're ready to see what we can do this year with a lot of similar players.”
The aspects of the 2018 defensive mentality that Nagy would like to see this year’s group adopt again boil down to two key things.
“The takeaways, the turnovers, and then also, there was a little bit of swag out there that I think this team had, and I love that about these guys. When you're having fun, you're cutting it loose, you're playing fast, you have success. You know that can help out so many ways.”
The Bears can talk about playing at an elite level on defense until they’re blue in the face, but none of that will matter unless things change on the field. Players have resolved to tackle better and finish plays, but with limited preseason reps it’s hard to tell whether or not they’ll make good on those resolutions. But the players are confident that big things can be in store this season because of a new culture that Desai has built, with an increase in individual accountability.
“It's something that he's preached to us since Day 1, is that it's going to be our defense and we're going to make it what we want to make it,” said Johnson. “As the leaders of the group we kind of really sat down and figured out who we're going to be as a defense and what it's going to take to do it. So we hold each other accountable to that level and to that standard every day.
“The mindset, the attitude, the mentality that we have attacking each day. We’re never content with the work. After good practices we still have things to clean up and just always wanting to be perfect, just reaching for that perfection level, I feel like it’s setting us up.”
“You think of Bears, you always think of defense,” said Robert Quinn. “It’s just more guys holding each other accountable... Guys getting older realize how precious this game is and each mistake, whoever makes it, is going to cost themselves or the team. Faces change all the time, and you just want to make sure you’re not the one not doing your job. So I guess, again, just goes to that accountability thing. Whatever the coaches call, do your job and make no excuses.”
When talking about Johnson, Nagy specifically mentioned he’s noticed the increased accountability himself. That’s extended to the vets, too.
“I can use yesterday as an example,” Nagy said. “Practice is over, and he’s out there half an hour after practice getting extra work in with Eddie Jackson. When you see that as a coach, any coach, regardless of who you are, and they’re still out there for a half an hour after practice doing stuff on their own, that’s pretty rare. That’s uncommon… Now, he’s gotta do it on game day, but the kid wants it. We have a lot of guys, not just those two guys, we have a lot of guys on offense, defense, special teams that are in that mode right now that I think is pretty neat, because it’s not being pushed. It’s just them doing it.
“Khalil (Mack) wants to have the best一 forget just him as a person一 he wants to have the best defense in the NFL. Every year we talk about that so the mentality that they have is wisdom and passing it on to these younger guys. That's why I feel the confidence. Combining that with what Sean wants to do and how we're going to do it. I think it's a mindset, and that's a mindset we've started in training camp and now we've got to transfer that on game day and do that for the whole season.”
The Bears are days away from putting that mindset to the test, and it will certainly be a test. Last season the Rams were one of the better offenses in the league, and they will likely be even more explosive this year with the additions of Matthew Stafford and DeSean Jackson. Sean McVay is still regarded as one of the top offensive minds in the NFL, and he’ll find creative ways to challenge Desai and the defense right out of the gate. Of course, the game will be played in primetime on Sunday Night Football, too, so the whole nation will be watching.
What a platform to put the 2018 defense to rest, and show the world what the 2021 edition can do.