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.
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.”