Chuck Pagano is embracing the lofty expectations that come with replacing Vic Fangio and taking over the league’s No. 1 defense, one which will be heavily scrutinized if it takes even a small step backward in 2019. But Pagano, who held his first press conference as the Bears’ defensive coordinator at Halas Hall on Thursday, isn’t merely viewing his task as maintaining that prior level of success.
Instead, as he approaches what he called the “opportunity of a lifetime,” he doesn’t see a reason why the Bears’ defense can’t be even better this coming season.
“Our vision for this defense is to be the best,” Pagano said. “Can we be the best in the history of the game? The pieces are there and they will continue to add pieces. Can we continue to be better than we were last year? Absolutely. It's going to be very, very difficult and a huge challenge, but one we will be up for.”
Having the best defense in NFL history, of course, is an ambitiously subjective goal. But when Pagano was hired earlier this month, he said Bears players texted him with the message: “We can be better, I can get better.”
How Pagano will go about trying to make a defense stocked with All-Pros, Pro Bowlers and ascending talents better will be the tricky part. But a theme of his 30-minute press conference on Thursday was continuity, from scheme to language to personnel.
Pagano is a 3-4 guy, like Fangio, whose main difference within base and sub packages is a more attack-based focus. When Pagano was the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator in 2011, his teams averaged about 14 blitzes per game, per Pro Football Focus. The Bears in 2018 averaged about nine blitzes per game.
So the first thing Pagano said when asked about his defensive strategy was telling: “Wreak havoc.” It’s a message Bears that should resonate among the players he’s inheriting, if impending free agent Adrian Amos’ social media reaction to it is any indication:
Pagano’s goal is to make things simple for his players, which could involve him learning the existing terminology left over by Fangio instead of having a full roster of defensive players learn his language. There’s a middle ground to be found, one which allows the Bears to understand their assignments and still play fast while operating a new coordinator’s scheme.
“The roster will change a little bit, but 90 percent of those guys are going to be back,” Pagano said. “So if I can put it on myself and (senior defensive assistant/outside linebackers coach) Ted (Monachino) being new, those kind of things, and learn that and make it easier on (players) and harder on me, I’ll do that.”
All of this is important given the difficulty of sustaining a top defense over the course of multiple years.
Only four of the top 10 defenses in 2017 by DVOA ranked in the top 10 again in 2018, with the Jacksonville Jaguars slipping from No. 1 to No. 6. It’s not impossible, though: The Denver Broncos repeated as the No. 1 defense by DVOA in 2015 and 2016, yet slipped from Super Bowl winners in 2015 to 9-7 and missing the playoffs in 2016.
The best-case thought with Pagano is his tweaks to the defense will not only allow the Bears to avoid a luck-based regression (with injuries and/or turnovers), but improve on their massively successful 2018. The worst-case still isn’t all that bad, with the Bears slipping a bit but still having loads of talent to comprise a good defense — though one that may not be good enough to make the Bears legitimate Super Bowl contenders without the aid of a much-improved offense.
But whatever Pagano does sounds like it will, in large part, be an extension of what Fangio and players like Khalil Mack, Eddie Jackson, Akiem Hicks did in 2018.
“They’ve been playing great defense here for a long, long time,” Pagano said. “Last year was no exception. So again, for us to just throw everything out and start anew, that would not be very smart on my part.”