Chuck Pagano

Bears at the Bye: Eddy Pineiro has been Matt Nagy's best decision of 2019

Bears at the Bye: Eddy Pineiro has been Matt Nagy's best decision of 2019

Matt Nagy's first season as head coach of the Bears was a near-impossible act to follow. The Bears went 12-4, won the NFC North and, let's be honest, if they had a competent kicker in last year's wild-card game against the Eagles, he'd have a playoff win on his resume too.

Nagy was named the 2018 NFL Coach of the Year, but with such success comes higher expectations and unexpected challenges.

Following such a dominant season on defense, Vic Fangio was one of the hottest coaching candidates on the circuit last offseason. He was hired by the Broncos to become Denver's new head coach, which thrust Nagy into a coaching search of his own to find a new defensive coordinator.

Enter Chuck Pagano, who after five weeks of the regular season has the Bears defense humming. There's been no regression post-Fangio. In fact, Chicago's defense is playing faster and with more physicality. There's more upside with this group under Pagano than there was with Fangio, and they've carried the Bears in their three wins out of the gate.

Nagy checked that box with no problem. But the boxes he hasn't checked this season yet are a consistent passing game and effective running game. His reputation as a standout offensive coach will slowly but surely be questioned if Mitch Trubisky and the rest of this offense don't get things figured out quickly after the bye.

One of the coaches who will be under the microscope is offensive line coach Harry Hiestand. And it's not because he's doing a bad job; his resume precedes him. Instead, the offensive line just hasn't come together through five games and the onus is on Hiestand to get them out of their funk. 

Ironically, the best decision Nagy's made so far in 2019 was the one to keep Eddy Pineiro as the team's starting kicker. Pineiro has been fantastic through five games; he's missed only one field goal attempt and it was while he was playing through injury in Week 3. Otherwise, he's been automatic. 

The Bears don't have a kicker problem anymore. Ever since Cody Parkey's double-doink that ended Chicago's season last year, the Bears' kicker situation has been under the national spotlight. From the training camp carousel of names to the sometimes awkward kicking competitions at practice, the end result has made it all worth it. Pineiro is a stud.

At least, so far.

We can't close out our Bears at the Bye without discussing the punter, Pat O'Donnell. He's been a mainstay on special teams since 2014 and he's doing just enough to keep that streak going into the future. He's 13th in the league in net average yards per punt, which isn't great but isn't bad either. Essentially, it's another classic O'Donnell season.

Bears coaching grade at the bye: C+

Bears special teams grade at the bye: B+ 

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Chuck Pagano says Bears defense will 'right the ship' during bye week

Chuck Pagano says Bears defense will 'right the ship' during bye week

The much-publicized Bears' defense has been the driving force behind the team's 3-2 record to start the season, but the NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. And with the Raiders physically outplaying Khalil Mack and his defensive running mates in their last game before the bye, naturally, some of the negative attention has shifted to that side of the ball.

Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano is embracing the criticism.

“We’re a good defense,” Pagano said on the Bears Coaches Show on WBBM Newsradio Monday night. “We’ve got really good players, but you’ve got to be consistent. You’ve got to do it week-in and week-out. You’ve got to show up and play week-in and week-out. Take some time to get away from it. Rest. Heal up. We’ve all got to take a good look at ourselves and make sure we look at this tape good and hard.”

One week after stuffing Dalvin Cook and the Vikings rushing attack in Week 4, the Bears allowed rookie Josh Jacobs to run for 123 yards and two touchdowns in a shocking 24-21 loss in London. Chicago's usually dominant defense was, well, dominated.

“We’re not going to make any excuses,” Pagano said. “I know coach (Matt Nagy) isn’t going to make any excuses. It’s the National Football League. I think we all understand what we signed up for. We had a golden opportunity. We let one get away.”

It won't get any easier for the Bears after their bye week. The Saints are up next in Week 7, followed by the Chargers, Eagles, Lions and Rams. Chicago has the most challenging schedule in the NFL over the final 11 games.

The Bears have a chance to get healthy and re-evaluate what's worked well during the week off, and Pagano is confident his group will respond in a big way.

“They’re a gritty bunch. They’re a resilient bunch. They’ll come back. We’ll be back, and we’ll play great football again. They’re determined. They’ll right this ship.”

The Bears proved Sunday they have the NFL's best defense, again

The Bears proved Sunday they have the NFL's best defense, again

A three-pronged narrative existed about the Bears’ defense prior to the season about why it was due for a regression.

Chuck Pagano couldn’t replicate Vic Fangio’s deft playcalling. It’d be unlikely the Bears could have 30-plus takeaways for a second consecutive season. The injury luck this group had in 2018 wouldn’t carry over to 2019.

Through four games? The Bears still have the best defense in the NFL. There hasn't been a hint of regression. What this group did in smothering the Minnesota Vikings, 16-6, Sunday at Soldier Field proved it.

“I think we sent a message today,” defensive lineman Nick Williams said.

Pagano’s defense has 17 sacks, the second-highest total in the NFL, thanks to not only the elite play of Khalil Mack but the well-designed and well-timed blitzes called by the Bears’ new defensive coordinator. Those sacks have accounted for a loss of 143 yards, too, and also don't account for the consistent duress opposing quarterbacks have been under. The transition from Fangio to Pagano has been nothing but smooth.

So toss that one out. Turnovers? They’re still coming. The Bears have eight in four games, good for a season-long pace of 32. Only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots have taken the ball away more than the Bears’ defense.

And only the Patriots — who’ve had the fortune of playing the intentionally-bad Miami Dolphins — have allowed fewer points per game on average than the Bears’ 11.3.

But the Bears, yes, have had worse injury luck. Bilal Nichols has missed the last two games with a broken hand. Pro Bowl defensive lineman Akiem Hicks couldn’t play Sunday with a knee injury. Inside linebacker Roquan Smith was a late scratch due to what the Bears said were personal reasons.

Those three losses looked to be critical ahead of facing Dalvin Cook, who entered Sunday as the NFL’s leading rusher. Cook gained 35 yards on 14 carries. The Vikings had 90 yards of total offense through three quarters. 

Replacing Nichols and Hicks were Williams, Roy Robertson-Harris, Abdullah Anderson and Jonathan Harris. That’s three former undrafted free agents and one 2013 seventh round pick who was out of the NFL in 2017 -- guys who've had to live on the margins of NFL rosters. 

Williams and Robertson-Harris were outstanding, combining for 3.5 sacks and three tackles for a loss. They were strengths, not weaknesses.

And inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski was all over the field in place of Smith, leading the Bears with 10 tackles as well as chipping in with a strip-sack and two tackles for a loss. No play better represented the Bears’ defensive effort on Sunday than Kwiatkoski bull rushing on Cook and shoving the Vikings’ running back into quarterback Kirk Cousins, resulting in a sack recorded by Williams.

“You put these guys on any other team, they’re starters,” safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. “So I don’t call them ‘not-starters.’ They’re just second team. Our backup is really strong.

“Like I said, our second team could be starters on other teams right now. That’s what makes us special is we have depth.”

The sense inside a jubilant locker room at Soldier Field Sunday was that this defense was just getting started. The coaching is there. The elite top-end talent, as well as the depth, is there. The turnovers are still coming. This group’s collective ability to rattle opposing offenses remains as strong as it was a year ago.

More challenges await this defense over the season’s final 12 games. There may be more injuries. They’ll have to contend with Phillip Rivers and Carson Wentz and Patrick Mahomes (and Daniel Jones).

But those quarterbacks will have to contend with Mack and Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson and, when he comes back, Hicks. And, too, they’ll have to contend with Robertson-Harris and Williams and a bunch of backups who are playing like starters.

Everything is hard for an offense when it goes against the best defense in the NFL. And that’s what the Bears sure look like they have, again.

“It’s the standard that’s been set,” Mack said. “Still got guys out there that can play ball. Got Pro Bowl caliber players. It’s the level of expectation that we expect. It’s not a shock to us.”

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