Return of the Monsters?

Image by Zachary Rosenbaum – https://www.instagram.com/zacharyrosenbaumdesign/

Butkus. Singletary. Tillman. Urlacher. These names, among a bevy of others, instantly bring to mind electrifying Chicago Bears defenses of yore. They’re the kinds of defenses that warrant nicknames upon which the franchise continues to build for decades. The kinds of defenses that strike visible fear in the eyes of their opponents. The kinds of defenses that elicit goosebumps from the fans watching their spectacular display of absolute domination. They’re also the kinds of defenses that bring about an overwhelming sense of trust from the fanbase, especially when ‘trust’ is the last word to describe how we’re feeling on the other side of the ball. But what exactly goes into producing such a commanding defensive presence on the field? And do the Bears have what it takes to become a top defense this season which could very likely be the catalyst that propels them into the playoffs? While there are a plethora of analytics and statistics that could govern the study of such defenses, I’d argue that it boils down to 4 key areas: coaching, takeaways, intelligence, and intangibles. Let’s take a deep dive into each of these areas, comparing this year’s squad to two of the most dominating defenses in recent Bears history: 2006 and 2018.  Will there be a return of the Monsters? Let’s find out.

Coaching

2006 

Coached by the famed Buddy Ryan himself, Ron Rivera took hold of the Chicago Bears defense in 2004 and immediately began to mold it to his standards. It only took one year for the Bears to become one of the top defenses in the league ranking #1 in points against and #2 in yards against. While his reputation as a highly-respected coach is solidified across the league today, it was his command of the Bears defense that propelled and honed his coaching style. He’s well known for expecting greatness and aggressiveness, but is also willing to listen to his players and always treats them with the utmost respect: “My approach is to treat everybody the same and treat them the way I want to be treated. I don’t like to say it out loud. I like to come up to the guy and say it, man to man, eye to eye, as opposed to just out and screaming.” This style clearly worked. While the 2005 defense technically ranks higher in terms of some statistics, it was the 2006 defense that paved the way to a 13-3 finish, a #1 standing in the NFC North and eventually that Super Bowl appearance. 

2018

While there are many similarities between dominant Chicago Bears defenses past, one that stands out is the collective respect garnered by the players for their coaches. Vic Fangio is one of the most reputable defensive coordinators to have ever landed in Chicago, and his style of defense is quickly becoming renowned across the league (more about that in the “intelligence” section coming up). Having coached in the NFL in some form or another since 1986, Fangio is no stranger to eliciting elite production from his players. When returning for the 2018 season, several players voiced their approval, including current lineman Akiem Hicks who said he was “juiced” that Fangio was back: “I really embrace him as our defensive coordinator.” This leadership was evident in the defensive production and their performance even drew comparisons to the esteemed 85 defense: ranking #1 in rushing yards allowed, points against, and takeaways, 12-4 overall, #1 in the NFC North, and smooth sailing right through to the first round of the playoffs… all the way until the Double Doink heard ‘round the world (or at least Chicagoland).

2021

It obviously remains to be seen what kind of defense Sean Desai will be able to produce, but there’s one thing that is clear from the get-go: the players all respect him, trust him implicitly and want to play to the highest standard to help bolster his debut. One player that has felt significant support from Desai is Eddie Jackson. As the Safeties Coach from 2019-2020, Desai personally took Jackson under his wing and was a large factor in Jackson continuing his spectacular performance in 2019, leading him to his second Pro Bowl in as many years. When asked about Desai’s promotion, Jackson said “[He] was one of the guys that helped me the most learning the plays, learning the schemes. So, for him to get that type of promotion is huge and I feel like it’s well-deserved.” Players from Tashaun Gipson to Danny Trevathan to Khalil Mack and more have all voiced their praise for the new defensive coordinator citing his preparedness, his organization, his passion and his rapport with the players. If the respect of the players is any indication of success like it has been in years past, Desai has got this locked down. 

Takeaways

2006

You’d be hard-pressed to find a season within the past 25 years as successful in takeaways as the Bears were in 2006. Their 44 takeaways that season were the second-most of any team since 1996 and only one team has beaten that record in the years since (the Chargers in 2007, and the 2012 Bears tied it). With an all-star cast including Ricky Manning and Peanut Tillman at cornerback, and Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs on the line, these monsters averaged at least one forced turnover in every single game of the season. And let’s not forget that this squad was the sole reason for one of the most infamous come-backs in Bears history against the Arizona Cardinals. In a series of events starting at the end of the third quarter including a sack, a couple of forced fumbles returned for touchdowns and a classic Hester punt-return for a touchdown, Dennis Green gave the best post-game presser of Bears fans’ lives: “The Bears are who we thought they were!” Anybody else like to just watch that clip when they’re having a bad day? No? Just me?

2018

While not quite the spectacular 44 takeaways of the 2006 team, the 2018 squad was no slouch coming in at #1 in the league that season with 36 total takeaways and was ranked the second best defense of the decade by PFF. Thanks to the addition of Khalil Mack, the front 7 embodied the pass-rushing terror of QB’s nightmares and recorded a whopping 15 forced fumbles – almost an average of one per game. This formidable force up front also allowed for the secondary to shine: Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson accounted for 13 of the 27 total interceptions that year. There’s not much more to say here, other than the fact that studying this defense is reigniting my seething anger toward a certain someone whose name rhymes with Shmody Shmarkey…

2021  

From the very first presser of training camp, Matt Nagy emphasized that one of the key goals of the defense this year would be a focus on takeaways, and Sean Desai is clearly on board. One of the highlights of camp this year has been the “takeaway bucket” – a literal bucket that serves to celebrate and collect all of the takeaways at each and every practice. Simple? Yes. Effective? Let’s hope so. The Bears defense looked to be relatively effective against the Dolphins in their preseason opener and managed to strip the ball and intercept Tagovailoa late in the game. The defense then proceeded to let the Giants literally run all over them down the field, with Mitch Trubisky at the helm, no less (seriously?). Luckily we perked up again versus the Titans in the final preseason game with the defense recording two interceptions, one for a touchdown. Of course, what matters are our starters going forward. I’m expecting huge seasons out of most of our front 7, and the combination of Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, and Bilal Nichols has me positively giddy thinking about the potential sacks and forced fumbles we get to witness out of that group. I’m also cautiously optimistic about the Eddie Jackson and Tashaun Gipson tandem at safety. However, it’s the cornerback situation that clearly needs the most improvement. Johnson and Vildor need to step it up in a big way. I’m not asking for Peanut Tillman production out of them, but solid coverage and at least a handful of interceptions are an absolute must if we don’t want to get completely exploited in the long game.

Intelligence

2006

As a member of the (arguably… I suppose) best defense of all time in 1985, Ron Rivera knew a thing or two about successful defensive schemes by the time he took the coordinator position for the Bears. In fact, with the ability to play all three linebacker positions, Riverboat Ron was known on the ‘85 squad for his versatility and his intelligence. Former Bears’ linebackers coach Dave McGinnis said of Rivera “he was one of the smartest players I ever coached”. But his true knowledge of the inner workings of a defense likely started with sideline sessions during his rookie year with Buddy Ryan. Ryan would call Rivera to the sideline and drill him with questions like “Why am I calling that?”, “What’s happening on this?” and “What are we looking at?”. Rivera said of his time with Ryan: “He really understood how to game plan and attack an opponent. That’s where I learned. I learned it from him. That’s when I really started to understand football”. With such a strong foundation, it’s no wonder it only took two seasons for Rivera’s defense to lead the Bears to the Super Bowl. An honorable mention in terms of intelligence: Urlacher, of course. His command of the defense and ability to call and switch plays at the line of scrimmage to get the upper-hand on the offense was unparalleled for that season in particular. I still get goosebumps thinking about those plays when we as fans just KNEW Urlacher had them outsmarted. 

2018

The Fangio style of defense is renowned throughout the league, and variations of it have spread to the Rams, Chargers and even those lame cheeseheads up north. With a mixture of zone and man coverage, meant to cause confusion at the line and to hide how the defense will progress post-snap, Vic Fangio has made a name for himself as one of the top defensive minds in the league. This formidable scheme was put on full display in week 13 of the 2018 season when the Rams traveled to Soldier Field. With Sean McVay as the “boy wonder” behind the offense, the Rams were 11-1 and averaged 34.9 points per game. But when Fangio pulled Eddie Jackson to the line in a unique 6-1 front, McVay’s weakside run game was completely staunched. The Bears won 15-6 while holding the Rams to only 214 total yards of offense. This unique combination of coverages and moving players around the field only served to elevate the innate intelligence of the players, especially those like Hicks, Goldman and Mack who were able to dominate offenses at the line and create unique opportunities for sacks and fumbles. 

2021

Google the name “Sean Desai” and you’ll come up with quite a few nicknames and adjectives: “mad scientist”, “professor”, and “genius” to name a few. But I don’t think I can describe Desai quite as well as Khalil Mack did in one of his post-camp presser’s: “Sean’s got a little more of a geeky side than any coordinator I’ve ever been around. His mind is like f****** always goin’. He’s a cool dude but he’s definitely got a geeky side to him”. (Side note: 52 is hilarious, what do we have to do to get him in more media interviews?!). But the point is clear: Desai’s mind is on another level. With a Ph.D in education from Temple, Desai considers himself a teacher first: “I’m an educator by trade and by passion. I’m a teacher. That’s the core of my coaching. That’s what I pride myself on.” And while he’s made it clear that this defense will be his own personal scheme, he also admits that there are elements that draw upon the Fangio defense of which he was able to study first-hand. Players have alluded to the similarities between this year and 2018 as well, noting Desai’s ability to highlight a player’s strengths and move guys around the field to disguise coverage and confuse the offense. Time will tell if Desai lives up to his “whiz kid” reputation, but his coaching philosophy coupled with his Fangio-style pedigree is a solid start. 

Intangibles

2006

Call it swagger, call it confidence, call it whatever you want – when a defense has IT, it’s undeniable, and the defense of 06 definitely had it. It was a near-unbeatable unit including Tommie Harris, Alex Brown, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Peanut Tillman, all at the height of their career and all playing to an unbelievably elite level. But more than that? They had fun, and boy were they fun to watch. From Urlacher outsmarting the offense at the line, to Brown flying around the edge for a sack, to Peanut intercepting down the sideline, you just knew that you were in for a show whenever the defense took the field. It’s hard to pick a favorite game or moment from that season because it’s chalk full of priceless memories, but the opening game at Lambeau definitely ranks at the top of my list. Bears won 26-0 – a complete shutout for the Packers, and the first time for it to ever happen with Favre at the helm. Now that’s what I call swagger.

2018

September 1st, 2018. AKA “Khalil Mack Day”. AKA the day that we completely hosed the Raiders in a blockbuster trade made of fan’s dreams. If there was a spark that served to completely ignite this defense, that was undeniably it. The addition of Mack only served to expand an absolutely killer line including Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan, Eddie Goldman, Akiem Hicks, and Leonard Floyd. Then we had the fantastic safety tandem of Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos, and of course Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara leading the secondary. The defense was firing on all cylinders all season long and once again, they were just a pure treat to watch. From Mack’s infamous high-stepping move after a sack to touchdown celebrations mirroring a Motown concert, this squad was absolutely hyped. Do yourself a favor and watch this 2018 defensive highlight reel, I promise it’s worth every second. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Npr5OSn3NX0&ab_channel=HumbleHighlights]

2021

So, will this year prove to be a “return of the monsters”? Will we see that quintessential swag and confidence brewing amongst the players? The core of that 2018 defense remains with Mack, Smith, Hicks, and Goldman finally making his return. Alec Ogletree has had a fantastic camp backed up by an even better story of how he ended up on the 53 man roster, so suffice it to say, I’m excited to see what he can bring to the table, at least while Trevathan is out. By all intents and purposes, the defense has had a stellar training camp, and the players have all said as much in their pressers, showing a strong hunger to get out there and get after the ball. Sean Desai is seemingly breathing new life into this defense that clearly lost its edge under the leadership of Chuck Pagano, and week after week we keep hearing about the defense dominating the offense in practices. Alas, the only true answer to this question is that we will have to wait and see. But the good news? We won’t have to wait long. This is officially the last week we have to survive without Bears Football. Da Bears are back, baby. And in my typical optimistic fashion, even to just speak it into the universe, I’ll say: the Monsters of the Midway are back, too, baby.

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