Bears Issue No. 3: How quickly can the defense improve?


Bears Issue No. 3: How quickly can the defense improve?

A significant portion of the Bears’ offseason consisted of a makeover of the defensive coaching staff; a complete change of defensive scheme, and a virtual makeover of the depth chart staffing that defense.

In the flag-football portion of offseason practices – minicamps, OTA’s – the speed was slightly above “install” and was without the pressure of speed, pads and an offense itself looking to establish itself with a new coordinator of its own.

All of those will be part of dialing up the level of both performance and expectations that comes with the first training camp for a staff, scheme and players needing to come together with urgency in the form of games against the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks in the first three weeks of the season.

Schemes are like diets; if you follow/execute them precisely, they pretty much all work, more or less, some better than others. But the change from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 is less important than how well a vast array of new players come together with a new coaching staff and philosophy.

That is one of the guiding directives of Bears Training Camp 2015.

How fast is realistic?

During his first NFL owners meeting as Bears head coach, John Fox departed ever so slightly from his conservative “under-state and over-produce” mantra to venture an opinion that the Bears would turn around their defensive disasters of the past two seasons “sooner [rather] than later.”

After an offseason of orientation under coordinator Vic Fangio into the first 3-4 scheme run by the Bears, and involving as many as eight potential new starters on defense, the new pass-rush alignments, run fits, pass drops and all the rest now begin in pads and with hitting.

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What Fangio has installed, beyond scheme specifics, is a quality decidedly absent the past two years:

“Creative,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee. “He is very creative. It might not look like it sometimes from some of the schemes, but he’s very aggressive. Every time when I watch practice film, I see things and think, ‘Dang, this guy is really creative.’ Sometimes I’ll wonder why he had me doing something, and then I watch the practice film, and it all plays out.”

“Creative” is more easily said than achieved. Mel Tucker talked about being it last year and it never materialized. Now it’s being attempted with a mix of new players brought in and existing ones who’ve never played Fangio’s scheme.

Nothing is assured

Conclusions are difficult and little more than speculation at this point. It would actually be more difficult NOT to improve than to get better, given the historic low points hit in 2013-14 that saw the Bears reach franchise-worsts in multiple areas despite then-coordinator Mel Tucker opting to remain with a scheme familiar to veteran players schooled in the Lovie Smith system.

Staying with a 4-3 scheme, including GM Phil Emery drafting linemen, linebackers and defensive backs ostensibly for their fits into that scheme, the Bears finished 2014 ranked 31st in points allowed and 30th in yards given up per game. Amazingly perhaps, despite multiple free-agent signings to bolster the unit, those results were even worse than the numbers posted the year before by a defense riddled with injuries to key members (Lance Briggs, Henry Melton, Charles Tillman, D.J. Williams).

[BEARS ISSUE NO. 1: Re-shaping a losing culture]

Notably, Fangio does not foresee problems even with veteran players like Allen or Willie Young making changes, for example.

They’ll be doing things they’re used to doing as an end, except they’re going to be doing it standing up and at the end of the line,” Fangio said. “It’s called a 3-4 defense, but in some ways you can call it a 5-2. We like bigger guys out there. I don’t foresee it being a major problem, although there’s a lot of learning and growing that has to take place.”

Bears still see Dion Sims as a valuable piece to their offensive puzzle

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Bears still see Dion Sims as a valuable piece to their offensive puzzle

Dion Sims is still here, which is the outcome he expected but perhaps wasn’t a slam dunk — at least to those outside the walls at Halas Hall. 

The Bears could’ve cut ties with Sims prior to March 16 and saved $5.666 million against the cap, quite a figure for a guy coming off a disappointing 2017 season (15 catches, 180 yards, one touchdown). But the Bears are sticking with Sims, even after splashing eight figures to land Trey Burton in free agency earlier this year. 

“In my mind, I thought I was coming back,” Sims said. “I signed to be here three years and that’s what I expect. But I understand how things go and my job is come out here and work hard every day and play with a chip on my shoulder to prove myself and just be a team guy.”

The Bears signed Sims to that three-year, $18 million contract 14 months ago viewing him as a rock-solid blocking tight end with some receiving upside. The receiving upside never materialized, and his blocking was uneven at times as the Bears’ offense slogged through a bleak 11-loss season. 

“The situation we were in, we weren’t — we could’ve done a better job of being successful,” Sims said. “Things didn’t go how we thought it would. We just had to pretty much try to figure out how to come together and build momentum into coming into this year. I just think there were a lot of things we could have done, but because of the circumstances we were limited a little bit. 

“… It was a lot of things going on. Guys hurt, situations — it was tough for us. We couldn’t figure it out, along with losing, that was a big part of it too.”

Sims will be given a fresh start in 2018, even as Adam Shaheen will be expected to compete to cut into Sims’ playing time at the “Y” tight end position this year. The other side of that thought: Shaheen won’t necessarily slide into being the Bears’ primary in-line tight end this year. 

Sims averaged 23 receptions, 222 yards and two touchdowns from 2014-2016; that might be a good starting point for his 2018 numbers, even if it would represent an improvement from 2017. More important, perhaps, is what Sims does as a run blocker — and that was the first thing Nagy mentioned when talking about how Sims fits into his offense. 

“The nice thing with Dion is that he’s a guy that’s proven to be a solid blocker,” Nagy said. “He can be in there and be your Y-tight end, but yet he still has really good hands. He can make plays on intermediate routes. He’s not going to be anybody that’s a downfield threat — I think he knows that, we all know that — but he’s a valuable piece of this puzzle.”

Bears logo ranked in bottom five of NFL in recent fan poll

USA Today

Bears logo ranked in bottom five of NFL in recent fan poll

The Chicago Bears logo has withstood the test of time. In a sports era full of uniform changes, the Bears have maintained the classic orange 'C' for most of their nearly 100 years in Chicago.

Unfortunately, tradition doesn't equate to popularity.

Chicago's logo ranked 28th in the NFL, according to a recent poll of nearly 1,500 football fans. Only the Redskins (29), Bengals (30), Jets (31) and Browns (32) were worse.

I’m not sure how I feel about the underbite on the “C.” I can see how this would be a polarizing feature of this logo. I wish to an extent that it met up more evenly. I think they could have had the bottom meet up in a more even fashion and still maintained the sharpness, of the “C,” which I like. I don’t mind the point [ON THE BACK SIDE OF THE “C”], without the point it would be super boring. The point actually does add something from a design standpoint that makes it stand out.

Bears fans will take exception with the results. Wins have been hard to come by in recent seasons, but there's still something special about seeing the familiar navy and orange on Sundays in the fall. The 'C' is arguably the biggest part of that. Sure, it's not a complex design overflowing with colors, but it represents a long and storied history. 

It's interesting that each of the bottom five teams have struggled to string together winning seasons. On the flipside, teams like the Saints, Falcons, Rams, Vikings and Eagles rank in the top six. Maybe it's recency bias.

In the NFC North, the Lions rank No. 2 (which is a shocker) and the Packers are No. 20.