When the Chicago Bears hired away Vic Fangio from the San Francisco 49ers in 2015, the move was hailed as acquiring one of the very best defensive coordinators in the NFL. He was supposed to be the man to turn around the team’s historically awful defense from 2014.
Logistically, not many could deny his credentials. The results and numbers spoke for themselves.
In Fangio’s tenure with the 49ers from 2011-2014, their defense ranked 4th, 3rd, and 5th (twice) in yards, respectively. They only dipped outside of the top five in least amount of points allowed, once, in 2014 towards the end of their short, but successful run.
Advanced analytics-wise, the defense only creeped out of the top five in Football Outsiders’ DVOA once - in 2013. Fangio’s unit peaked in 2012 when it was second ranked. Not by coincidence, the 49ers played in the Super Bowl against the Baltimore Ravens that season.
By every respective measure, the 58-year-old had a terror on one side of the ball that was the primary reason San Francisco made it to three straight NFC Championship Games from 2011-2013 and that fateful Super Bowl XLVII. Beyond any of Fangio’s musings, those teams were successful because they had all of the ideal talent you want on defense.
From guys like Patrick Willis to Aldon Smith, the 49ers subjectively had the league’s best front seven, a superb safety duo, and it allowed them to impose their will as they pleased on less-than-fortunate offense’s. With the Bears, the operation was fruitless from the start in comparison.
It wasn’t until 2016 when players such as first-round pick Leonard Floyd came onto the scene, or Akiem Hicks became a disruptor, to where Chicago started to get the talent necessary for their coordinator. Still, in Fangio’s two seasons, the Bears’ best defensive DVOA ranking is 22nd - last season, of course.
At this rate, that’s not good enough for Chicago.
But the thing about coaching, is that while you try and put your players in as best possible position to succeed, you’ll still be limited by their talent level and what they can actually do. Potentially, maybe Fangio isn’t as good of a coach as initially thought, but then again, what have the Bears given him to work with?
The only defensive mastermind that can turn anyone into a contributor is New England’s Bill Belichick, but that’s a different standard altogether. It would be unwise to compare Fangio to Belichick - a guy with five Super Bowl victories and nine AFC championship appearances.
No, the Bears have to build their own model instead. And they clearly value Fangio enough to block interview requests from ironically, the 49ers.
However, if Chicago is to build a consistent championship contender with this regime, they’re going to need to continue to add the players that fit for Fangio and do what he asks of them and so much more.
So, let’s compare the defensive starters from the best of the San Francisco pseudo-dynasty in 2012 (six Pro Bowlers and six First or Second-Team All-Pro appearances back then) to the Bears’ current group in 2017. If they don’t have a particular comparable piece, we’ll consider who can eventually fill in to help Chicago contend down the line.
2012 49ers defensive line: Justin Smith, Isaac Sopoaga, Ray McDonald
- The now retired Smith enjoyed his best years under Fangio in San Francisco.
From 2009-2013, Smith was selected to five consecutive Pro Bowls. But in 2011 and 2012, when Fangio first came over, he was a First-team All-Pro. All of this to say that of all the defensive talent the 49ers had, he might not have necessarily been the best, but he was definitely the most important.
Smith’s ability to swallow up blockers while simultaneously being an unblockable, dynamic pass rushing threat allowed linebackers like Willis and NaVorro Bowman to roam free, and Aldon Smith to take advantage of one-on-one pass rushing match-ups of his own. Any time he was out or limited, such as when he tore his triceps late in the 2012 season, you immediately noticed how the 49ers defense faltered.
Without a doubt, Smith was the key cog to their defensive success.
- The other defensive end in 32-year-old McDonald has run into some problems since his heyday in San Francisco and ever since the Bears’ controversial signing of him followed by subsequent release in 2015. Nevertheless, he was a starter for a conference championship team.
I wouldn’t consider McDonald much of a difference maker in comparison to Smith or anyone, however. Even with attention diverted away from him, his numbers of 11.5 sacks in those three seasons didn’t inspire much.
- And the most understated player in comparison to the rest of the 49ers defense in Sopoaga, wasn’t asked to do much for Fangio’s unit other than plug a hole in the middle adequately. With a career 8.5 sacks across 11 seasons (one in 2012), he was never seen as a playmaker. Mostly, because he couldn’t and didn’t have to be.
Bears defensive line: (To be determined), Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman
- I think of all of the specific places the Bears desperately lack on defense for Fangio, it’s Smith’s position. They don’t have a clear dominant 3-4 defensive end on the right side. Jonathan Bullard might yet be a good player, but he made no impact in his rookie season, so it’s too early to tell.
Who could fill in for Smith: The Bears lucked out because there are two players that fit this Smith mold in the upcoming draft: Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, and Stanford’s, Solomon Thomas. It’ll just be about preference in scheme and ability.
But, they do have Hicks and Goldman already in place which is a huge plus and upgrade over the other two 49ers.
- Last season, Hicks enjoyed a career year in almost every relevant defensive category after signing with the Bears in free agency. 36 tackles, 17 quarterback pressures, seven sacks, and two forced fumbles had the 27-year-old stuffing the stat sheet. Fangio unleashed his new toy on the left side in a versatile role and it paid immediate dividends across the entire defense. Now, he could be in line for a contract extension, although there have been no rumblings yet.
- While Goldman, who is still just 23-years-old, is a clear upgrade from his former Bay Area counterpart in Sopoaga.
In two seasons, Goldman has seven sacks and has continually shown an ascending ability - when he’s been on the field that is. Leg injuries have hampered any of the progress in development for the defensive tackle.
He’s considered one of the Bears’ building blocks for a reason and if he can stay healthy, Goldman will be a monster in the middle for years to come on a Chicago contender.
While the last two positions aren’t the most crucial for a Fangio defense, it still speaks to something being done right by the Bears.
2012 49ers inside linebackers: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman
Uh, so ... there’s a lot to live up to here for the Bears.
- Let’s see, seven-time Pro Bowler and a five-time First-Team All-Pro (including all of the Fangio years up to 2012) on one hand in Willis. And a three-time Pro Bowler along with a four-time First-Team All-Pro in Bowman.
- If you wanted to run up the middle against the 49ers, these two were always there. If you wanted to send tight ends down the seam or use your running back in the passing game, they were always there. Willis and Bowman were the gold standard of playing linebacker and together - they were unmatched.
It was rare the season where Willis didn’t have at least 100 tackles (2011) while the current Bowman has only missed the mark twice - his rookie season in 2010 and a year lost to a knee injury in 2014.
There simply aren’t enough superlatives to describe what they did in unison for San Francisco and how they shifted the field with their presence.
You want to have a good Fangio defense? You need the dominant 3-4 defensive end creating space in Smith, and behind him, you need linebackers such as Willis and Bowman.
Bears inside linebackers: Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan (?), Nick Kwiatkoski
The thing about comparing the current Bears inside linebackers to San Francisco, is that while the current crop Chicago possesses is actually good, it’s nowhere near the level of what the 49ers had with Bowman and Willis.
- Freeman was likely on his way to an All-Pro season in 2016 before a suspension for performance enhancing drugs. Trevathan is a nice player but who knows how he’ll recover from a patellar tendon injury suffered last November. Meanwhile, Kwiatkoski seems to have a lot of upside as a fourth-round pick, and yet no one can be confident he becomes a quality starter.
- Easiest conclusion to draw: The Bears should be fine at this position for Fangio’s needs to contend, even while not up to par of the San Francisco duo, provided one of Trevathan or Kwiatkoski performs well soon.
2012 49ers outside linebackers: Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith
- For a time, there might not have been a better pure pass rusher in the NFL other than Smith, save for maybe, Von Miller.
During this celebrated three-year run with the 49ers, Smith accumulated 137 tackles and 42 sacks. A lot of his success and finishing plays were tied to his companion in the other, bigger Smith, but there was no doubting the terror he proved to be. 6-foot-4 with all of the length in the world and at 265 pounds, allowed him to do what he wanted against offensive tackles.
Not many rookies have 14.5 sacks in a rookie First-Team All-Pro season, too.
Add that kind of dimension to an already dominant defense that had just lost in the 2011 NFC Championship Game the year prior, and you’ve become special. Who knows where his career with the Raiders takes him now, but it’s hard to forget Smith’s past dominance.
- Meanwhile, Brooks was one of the more underrated physical, edge-setting outside players in the league.
Brooks wasn’t a guy that was going to light up the statistical sheet as a pass rusher, but he was going to be excellent in his run defense, and clean up the quarterback when necessary (22 sacks from 2011-2013).
Brooks was an unheralded but very talented player that was a Second-Team All-Pro in 2012 on a 49ers defense where he was simply overshadowed by other true stars. Yet, his role as a primary, physical run defender in Fangio’s scheme wasn’t lost on anyone.
Bears outside linebackers: Leonard Floyd, Pernell McPhee
Here’s another spot where Chicago can potentially match those previous dominant Fangio defenses to contend.
- The 24-year-old Floyd is already two years older than where Smith started in his peak form, but that doesn’t mean he can’t reach or transcend past that level.
Floyd’s biggest obstacle to overcome is his slender frame. At 240 pounds, his length at 6-foot-6 won’t always let him go somewhere as eventually tackles will have their way in throwing him around.
But if he can successfully add strength and weight while maintaining his freakish quickness and athleticism off the ball that helped him to seven sacks in his rookie season, the Bears might have themselves a Pro Bowler and more in Floyd. This is probably the player on Chicago’s defense to get the most excited about.
Adding an interior partner like the pass-rushing Smith once had to work in tandem with Floyd wouldn’t be the worst idea considering what Fangio prefers on his front as well.
- On the other side, I don’t think it’s fair to say McPhee has been a disappointment, but his availability and issues with his debilitating knee condition is concerning. You can’t have a starting outside linebacker play in only 23 of 32 possible games. And as he gets older, it’s fair to monitor just how effective he’ll be.
Though, as he says he feels “sexier”, after losing 25 pounds in the offseason adhering to a strict diet, maybe the Bears will finally be able to fully appreciate what he offers across an entire season. If he can indeed stay healthy, McPhee is very comparable to what Brooks was as a run defender and power clean-up guy.
2012 49ers cornerbacks: Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown
This was always the relative weak point of Fangio’s defense. He didn’t see a need for premier cornerbacks provided the rest of his defense was in tune.
- When the 49ers signed the former first-round pick in Rogers to a one-year deal in 2011, he wasn’t supposed to turn into a “very good” number one corner, but he did.
As a relative disappointment with the Redskins, Rogers needed a fresh start and with the front seven that was built in San Francisco, he would have all of the opportunity in the world. In his three-year stint with the 49ers, he had 146 tackles and nine interceptions (six in a Pro Bowl 2011 season). He was never to be confused with a Patrick Peterson or Richard Sherman, but he got the job done as best he could considering the talent around him offering an assist.
- The 2007 late round pick in Brown wasn’t anything special for the 49ers. He was the number two cornerback by default given roster options. That doesn’t diminish his four interceptions in 2011 as San Francisco became great. It’s just hard to see too much value in a player most frequently targeted by opposing offense’s. Being the weakest link on an awesome defense isn’t a good thing.
Bears cornerbacks: (To be determined), (To be determined)
I’m going to go ahead and say that even while someone like Marcus Cooper received some security on his three-year free agent deal with Chicago, the Bears still have no one long-term they inherently trust on the boundaries. Note, that with a good draft, they easily have a better duo than that San Francisco team. It’s just that the depth chart isn’t pretty right now.
Prince Amukamara is on a one-year prove-it deal. Kyle Fuller’s future still seems tentative even if the Bears say they will try him out at safety. Deiondre’ Hall is getting the full treatment at safety. Tracy Porter is more of a depth cornerback and should never see the field. B.W. Webb is a depth guy. And Cre’Von LeBlanc and Bryce Callahan are nickel cornerbacks fighting for one position.
There is no true keeper on the roster until further notice even if some of these players have some upside.
Who could fill in for Rogers, Brown: As said, the Bears don’t have to do much to upgrade from these two. In reality, they just need disciplined guys that aren’t getting burned consistently.
Yet again, they are lucky, as the draft presents plenty of star options at cornerback such as Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore, LSU’s Tre’Davious White, or Washington’s Kevin King.
I’m not sure how much of a priority Fangio would place on any of these players given the constructs of his previous defense, but it would do wonders for luxury.
2012 49ers safeties: Donte Whitner, Dashon Goldson
A Fangio defensive scheme needs quality safety talent on the back-end. These two did not disappoint.
- Goldson has since lost relevancy after leaving the 49ers in 2013, but beforehand, was a First-Team All-Pro safety in 2012. Goldson was a hammer that could bring explosiveness to the point of attack while also easily making plays on the ball. He had the perfect range and energy Fangio was looking for in a safety in his aggressive defense.
- His partner in Whitner (previously Hitner) was likewise a similar hammer and brought physicality on every play. This wasn’t a guy who missed tackles and to be frank, a lot of the hits he made would be probably deemed illegal years later. But, he was a Pro Bowler in 2012 and he allowed Fangio to use his great safety duo how he saw fit. A sweet partnership.
Bears safeties: (To be determined), (To be determined)
Here’s where the rub for Fangio’s current unit primarily lies. His defense needs excellent safety play beyond the front seven to excel and in two seasons, Adrian Amos and Harold Jones-Quartey, among others, have been abhorrent.
As with the cornerbacks, I don’t think any current safety on the roster will be a starter the next time the Bears are contenders. Not Amos. Not Jones-Quartey. Not stop-gap, Quintin Demps (potentially). Nope.
There’s no elite talent present and it’s where the Bears are most likely to upgrade significantly with either of their first two picks in the draft, because they have to.
Who could fill in for Goldson, Whitner: This much is obvious if the Bears want to give Fangio a full compliment of a defensive roster: It would be almost impossible to get safety wrong in the 2017 Draft.
Take your pick of Jamal Adams or Malik Hooker at number three overall or say, Budda Baker or Obi Melifonwu in the late first or second round. A litany of options awaits a happy defensive head man in Fangio.
With all of this in mind, it’s clear the Bears are missing the three of the four most integral pieces Fangio’s track record: A dominant defensive end and two good safeties. Floyd is that fourth piece, to note.
With some of those other tools like Goldman on the front seven, it’s a solid start but hardly enough if Chicago is to set a new bar for defense again. Stack up and let the guru get to work.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.