When Sean Desai was a quality control coach for the Bears, Vic Fangio would sit next to him in the coaching booth during games. Or, as Desai quickly corrected, he sat next to Fangio.
“He got to choose where he wanted to sit, I was just put next to him,” Desai said.
But the arrangement gave the young assistant “a front row seat” to watch one of the top defensive minds in the NFL call games.
“I was able to reflect every game -- within in the game and after the game -- of why certain things happened, certain situations, why he called that,” he said Monday.
Desai, 37, is now the Bears’ newly promoted defensive coordinator after former DC Chuck Pagano retired last month. Pagano was the third defensive coordinator Desai learned under in his eight years in Chicago, but there’s very little doubt about the direction of defensive scheme in 2021.
“Vic has been my biggest mentor in the NFL,” Desai said.
The goal is to get the Bears’ defense back to where it was in 2018 under Fangio, when it was the No. 1 unit in the NFL. But Desai, speaking to reporters for the first time since earning the promotion last month, is also taking ownership of the scheme.
“This is going to Sean Desai's defense. The 2018 defense was the best defense in 2018, and our goal is going to be the best defense in 2021,” Desai said. “I think that's what our players are going to embrace and understand.”
The Vic Fangio Scheme
Before understanding how Desai might put his spin on Fangio’s defense, we first need to understand the defensive philosophy. While much of the league was moving towards Seattle’s single-high “Legion of Boom” defense in the last decade, Fangio was holding steady with a defense that focused more on overlapping coverages with two-high safeties and lighter boxes.
“The defense has withstood the test of time,” Desai said. “It might be hot now and that could just be guys like you are catching onto it, but the defense was good in San Francisco when (Fangio) was doing it then. It was good for the New Orleans Saints when he was the outside linebackers coach back then. So that part of it, it's proven through the test of time and it's adjusted and it's been adaptable through all different kinds of offense.”
The truth is that there are multiple styles of defenses that are working. Heck, Todd Bowles just won a Super Bowl in Tampa with the fifth highest blitz rate (40.2%) in the league. Fangio’s defenses tend to blitz less, and that’s working too. Brandon Staley – fresh off the Fangio coaching tree – just led the No. 1 defense in the NFL with the Rams and immediately earned a head coaching job with the Chargers.
“I think we can we put pressure on a quarterback and opposing offenses in different ways, and we're going to do that,” Desai said. “Pressure doesn't mean five-, six- or seven-man rushes. It means mental pressure. It means physical pressure. And I think the defense allows us to do that.”
Fangio’s influence continues to spread, as Packers head coach Matt LaFleur just hired Joe Barry as his new defensive coordinator after Barry spent just one year working under Staley in Los Angeles. Barry has coached in several different defensive philosophies, but it’s clear LaFleur wants a piece of the Fangio influence in Green Bay.
“The why of why I think the defense is popular is I think we've got answers,” Desai said. “It emphasizes player productivity and really emphasizes a team defense. We're not looking for one guy to win all the time. We're going to have opportunities for a lot of guys to win in different situations and I think that's a valuable thing.”
The base of the defense isn’t all that different from the Tampa-2 the Bears used to run under Lovie Smith: Win up-front with four and use team speed on to cover on the back end. But operating out of a 3-4 base, the Fangio defense allows for a greater variety in coverages and more overlap. This results in lighter boxes and smaller runs allowed, but severely limits explosive plays by the offense.
If you listen to offensive coaches these days – including Matt Nagy – they are constantly talking about the need to create explosive plays. The reason the Fangio defense is so successful is because it is most effective in limiting explosives.
What will be different under Desai
The Bears didn’t get away from the Fangio defense under Chuck Pagano, but they ran it less effectively. And there are two core differences you’re likely to see under Desai:
1. More disguise in coverages. Let’s face it, the Bears became extremely predictable in their defensive coverages by the second half of the 2020 season. Just look at the two Packers games when Aaron Rodgers seemed to know exactly what the Bears were in on every play. Expect Desai to mix coverages, especially at the snap (i.e. rolling out of a two-deep shell into a single-high look at the snap). Modern offenses are constantly trying to give quarterbacks as much information as possible before the snap and Fangio’s defense counters that by forcing the quarterback make a decision after the ball is in his hands.
2. Adaptation to personnel. A big reason why Fangio’s scheme has withstood the test of the time is that he doesn’t pigeonhole players into his defense. He adapts to his personnel. Staley did that with Jalen Ramsey in 2020, moving him all over the defense depending on matchups to get him closer to the football. That made it nearly impossible for offenses to avoid the All-Pro cornerback entirely.
Desai, who was the safeties coach before his promotion, will almost certainly look for similar answers with rangy safety Eddie Jackson, who was an All-Pro under Fangio in 2018, but has regressed the last two seasons. The Bears still have plenty of talent on defense but finding ways to get more out of that talent – Kyle Fuller’s one interception in 2020 also comes to mind – will be the focus. It’s why Desai does not view this challenge as a major defensive makeover.
“This is like a tune up,” he said. “We’re going to refine some things and make sure our players are playing to their strengths on a consistent basis. They’re going to buy into the system and the whys and the hows of why we’re doing certain things. But we’ve got a good defense. We got really good players here.”
As for an identity?
“It’s going to be something that’s palpable, whether you’re watching the tape, whether you’re watching at home or whether you’re in the stadium,” Desai said. “And a thing that you can feel: Our physicalness, you can feel toughness, you can feel discipline, you can feel a sense of swarming to the ball and finishing. Those are things that we’re going to be able to hang our hats on, from a coaching perspective, from a player perspective and that’s where it’s going to start.”
And if all else fails, Desai can always call Fangio.
“I've got a direct line of communication to Vic to see what he's calling on certain plays,” Desai said. “Not that he might give it to me, but at least I can ask.”