Vic Fangio

Former CB Bryant McFadden says the Monsters of the Midway are back

Former CB Bryant McFadden says the Monsters of the Midway are back

While most of the attention paid to the Chicago Bears in 2017 was on Mitch Trubisky, it was the defense that was the real story. The Vic Fangio-led group finished the season ranked as a top-10 unit and is entering 2018 with most of the key pieces in-tact.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback and current CBS Sports analyst Bryant McFadden said Chicago’s defense is one of the key reasons why they’re a sleeper team for the upcoming season during a recent appearance on the Pick-Six Podcast.

"This is a sleeper team, but I love this team," McFadden said. "The Monsters of the Midway -- they're back. Chicago. Quiet as kept, this was a top-10 defense a year ago. Under the radar. They have, in my opinion, the best young defensive unit in the league. Young, I'm talking about youth. 

“Jacksonville, they're extremely young, but they've got a few quality, older experienced pieces. When you look at this Chicago Bears defense, youth is on all three phases as far as the front, the second level and the third level.” 

One of those key young pieces is first-round pick Roquan Smith, who’s expected to become an instant impact player and potentially the defense’s leader by season’s end.

“Roquan Smith? Boy, he's a dog and I'm not just saying that because he went to Georgia,” McFadden said. “He is a DOG. He's a tone-setter -- he's the guy who throws people out of the club. He's like the bouncer and you have to have that type of personality on your defense."

The Bears defense has more than just an exciting rookie, however. They’re returning key starters like Akiem Hicks, Adrian Amos, Eddie Jackson and a healthy Leonard Floyd, who will be relied on to serve as Chicago’s sack master in 2018.

"Akiem Hicks, big time baller. Eddie Goldman is like the anchor of that defense. Leonard Floyd -- he's sneaky good, and the crazy part about Leonard Floyd is he's not strong. He's lengthy, but he finds a way to create pressure.”

The only issue facing Chicago’s defense is depth, especially at outside linebacker. If Floyd struggles to stay healthy or doesn’t take that next step in his development, the roster is void of any proven option to get after the quarterback. 

Still, there’s good reason to be optimistic about what Fangio and the Bears defense is capable of this season. Assuming the offense is improved and produces more points for the defense to work with, Hicks, Floyd, Smith and the rest of the starters may end up leading the team on a possible playoff run in January.

Why the Bears believe they can be more than a top 10 defense in 2018

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USA Today Sports Images

Why the Bears believe they can be more than a top 10 defense in 2018

Vic Fangio is entering his fourth year as the Bears’ defensive coordinator, and does so with a certain level of continuity he hasn’t had in years past. 

To wit: The 2017 Bears had to replace five of their top 20 snap-getters from 2016; that number, in practice, was actually six after Jerrell Freeman suffered a season-ending injury against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1. The 2018 Bears will have to replace five of their 20 most-used players from 2017, to be fair, but consider where each of those players ranked in terms of defensive snaps received the previous year:

2017 players to replace in 2018: Christian Jones (8th), Mitch Unrein (13th), Pernell McPhee (14th), Lamarr Houston (17th), Quintin Demps (20th)
2016 players to replace in 2017: Tracy Porter (1st), Jerrell Freeman (4th), Harold Jones-Quartey (5th), Cornelius Washington (14th), Jacoby Glenn (18th), Demontre Hurst (19th)

The point being this: There’s far more year-to-year consistency on the top end of Fangio’s current defense than he had a year ago. And that’s the starting point for why this group is setting lofty expectations in 2018. 

“When guys were asking this in prior years, even last year, ‘it’s your third year, are you feeling continuity?’ my answer was no, because we had a lot of changes from year to year,” Fangio said. “From year one to two, there was a lot of change. Year two to three, there was change. 

“There’s been less change this year so I do feel more continuity and that’s helpful. But ultimately we still have to go out and play (well), but I do believe there is more carryover and foundation than there has been, even last year, and obviously the year before that.”

Outside of drafting Roquan Smith with the eighth overall pick, the Bears’ big moves to address Fangio’s defense this offseason were to bring back Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara. Aaron Lynch was added on a one-year prove-it deal, and three mid/late-round picks were used to add Joel Iyiegbuniwe, Bilal Nichols and Kylie Fitts. Smith, and possibly Lynch, may be the only additions who regularly start of that group. 

“I think we’re in a good place because there’s guys who’ve been here before,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “You don’t really have to preach anything; we’ve already established our culture and what we want from ourselves, and everybody’s pushing toward that same goal.”

Continuity breeds culture, with leaders emerging across the defense. Trevathan and Hicks are each entering their respective third years in Fangio’s scheme, while other leaders are popping up across the defense. 

The leadership from this unit won’t be like the Bears had under Lovie Smith a decade ago, when Brian Urlacher was the unquestioned leader of that bunch. There will be a smattering of leaders on this defense, which is fitting — right now, there isn’t a true “star” of this bunch, but that doesn’t mean A) one can’t emerge and B) it’ll necessarily put a ceiling on how good this group can be. 

A common theme from talking to defensive players is that, because they don’t have to focus on installing larger concepts and plays — which is what the offense is doing — they’ve been able to focus on some of the smaller details during these non-padded OTA and minicamp practices. And it’s fixing some of those minor things that are why players on this defense believe they can indeed go from good to great this fall. 

“We performed well last year as a defense — our record didn’t show it — but now it’s all about the little things — the little things to get us there, the little things that get you beat, too,” Trevathan said. “So we want to go ahead and eliminate those minor mistakes. It’s little things that can grow over time, and we want to nip them in the bud right now. That’s why I’m glad we’re out here, I’m out here right now playing with this defense right now and getting a sense of where we can be better. And that’s what we want heading into camp. It feels great heading into camp, and stopping the little things right now will help us tremendously.” 

A Bears offense causing 'fits' for a good defense? No, really, Bears say it’s happening

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USA TODAY

A Bears offense causing 'fits' for a good defense? No, really, Bears say it’s happening

Akiem Hicks likes what he is seeing in the Chicago Bear offense as being constituted by coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich. He just doesn’t like playing against it.

“It’s just overall… it’s just blazing,” the Bears’ best defensive lineman said on Tuesday. “Everybody’s catching balls and everybody on the offensive side, they just look a little bit fresher and a little bit quicker and more likely to make a play.

“There’s so many dang moving parts, it gives us fits in practice.”

Bears offenses don’t give too many teams or players “fits,” so that would be a good thing, or at least a leaning in a good direction. And superlatives from a very good member of a very good defense carry some cred because Hicks and the defense certainly have a pretty good idea what an inept Bears offense looks like.

The Chicago offense is causing difficulties for its companion defense. And the chief executive of that defense actually has gone so far as to include the Bears’ and Green Bay’s offenses in the same comment, something that has not happened since… well… since … when did Walter retire? Sid Luckman?

“The guys in pass coverage have to be slow to react to what looks like an obvious run,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, “and they have to maintain the discipline of the pass coverage because basically they’re running quick games with the running game.

“Green Bay has been running these types of plays for a long time, just not to the abundance that now more teams are doing it. We’ve all seen where the quarterback gets the ball under center and throws it out real quick to a receiver because the DB is way off. Now they’re just doing that out of the shotgun, but they’re running routes with it, whereas under center you can’t do it. You know, quick routes. It’s, I don’t want to say a problem, but it’s different and it’s new and you have to adjust to it.”

Looking for impact from the get-go

Sometimes the subtleties and implications of statistics are a bit arcane. Sometimes they smack you right between the eyes.

The Bears were outscored last season in three of four quarters. No real surprise there; teams don’t go 5-11 by outscoring opponents at many points of many games. The 2017 Bears were 0-10 when trailing after three quarters, making it mildly interesting that the only quarter in which the Bears finished with a scoring edge (83-72) was the fourth. Since they were 0-10 when trailing after three quarters, one suggested explanation would be that opponents took their feet off the gas with games pretty well in hand.

More telling perhaps, though, is that the Bears were 1-7 when they’d fallen behind after the first quarter, 0-10 when trailing (0-9) or tied (0-1) at halftime. In nine of 16 first quarters, the Chicago offense failed to score at all, meaning that the Bears may have had the ninth-ranked scoring defense (20 ppg), but that defense was effectively playing from behind for the majority of last season, which saps the spirit as well as the body collective.

“For us,” Hicks said, “I think the biggest difference is having an offense that’s going to score in the first half.”

The Bears last season averaged 8.2 points per first half – 28th in the NFL. The number was the same for Mitch Trubisky as it was for Mike Glennon.

The 131 total Bears first-quarter points scored from 2015-17 is the lowest three-year point total since the paltry 2002-04 days of Chad Hutchinson/Craig Krenzel/Kordell Stewart/Jonathan Quinn (125).

The front office and head coach gave the defense back its coaching staff and threw in the first-round draft pick to sweeten the deal. But the bigger boost the defense has received came not on its own side of the football, but on the other, where what is happening with a still-molten offense already has had an impact on a unit that could have been excused for complaining of non-support.

The effect of the offensive changes has registered on the other side of the ball.

“The offense is definitely a pretty good offense,” said rookie linebacker Roquan Smith, whose college frame of reference from Georgia has been the SEC. “And Coach Nagy’s system is pretty neat. They do a lot of great things on that side of the ball."