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Sean Desai, the New “Big Boss” of the Chicago Bears’ Defense

The Bears promoted Sean Desai into their defensive coordinator position. That doesn’t mean everything will remain the same.

The Chicago Bears were guaranteed of a few notable changes on defense following the conclusion of their 2020 season and playoff elimination by the New Orleans Saints. This was before Chuck Pagano officially retired from his DC position days later. Now, there is set to be more moving parts following the most recent updates from their staff.

Earlier this past week, defensive line coach Jay Rodgers left for the Los Angeles Chargers for a promotion in coaching responsibilities. His contract expired after the end of the Bears’ 2020 season. Rodgers was an internal candidate for a promotion into the Bears defensive coordinator position as well.

Upon the writing of this article, news broke that outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino will not return for the Bears next season. It was speculated early on that he could have been a candidate for the Bears’ DC job. Yet, as the dust settles, it turns out that wasn’t the case. He wasn’t one of the two primary candidates aside from Jay Rodgers.

The other primary internal candidate? Bears safeties coach Sean Desai. In his case, he was rewarded with a major promotion in his young career. The Bears recently made the news official.

Fellow writer Jacob Infante has the full coverage of that hire in this article.

As I am sure others have already noted, if not seen, this hire stands out for a few reasons.

  1. He is the first internal promotion for DC since 2010 when Rod Marinelli was tabbed by Lovie Smith following Bob Babich’s demotion (who was also promoted to DC in 2007)
  2. He is the first known coach of Indian descent to earn a coordinator role in the NFL
  3. His promotion arrives at a fairly young point in his career after finishing just his 6th season as an NFL assistant

It wasn’t like he was the only likely candidate for the job, either. In addition to Jay Rodgers, the Bears reportedly interviewed with the following coaches: James Bettcher; Jonathan Gannon; George Edwards; Aaron Glenn; and Mike Singletary. I also had Bears assistants Mark DeLeone (Inside Linebackers) and Ted Monachino (Outside Linebackers) as possible targets.

For as unlikely as an external hire seemed, Matt Nagy and the Bears certainly vetted quite an interesting list of coaches for their hire. Three of their known interviews were with coaches that possess previous experience as defensive coordinators. Their other four known candidates — Gannon, Glenn, Rodgers, Desai — do not. It’s always a gamble when you hire a coordinator with no previous playcalling experience.

In the case of Sean Desai, his time has arrived.

He was brought in originally as a quality control assistant under Mel Tucker for Marc Trestman’s defensive staff in 2013. We all remember quite well how bad the Bears’ defense was between 2013 and 2014. Yet, Sean Desai was the lone survivor of that coaching staff, as he was retained by Vic Fangio in 2015 and had a prominent role early on.

Sean certainly has a big fan in former Chicago Bear, Sam Acho.

The Bears’ coaching staff seems to believe in Sean Desai as much as his players do. In 2019, a request was filed by Vic Fangio to interview him for a vacancy on his new coaching staff with the Denver Broncos. The Bears denied that request. Instead, safeties coach Ed Donatell and outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley left with Vic for Denver. Sean was then promoted to the teams’ safeties coach position.

That later development is also why I was initially bearish on Sean Desai’s candidacy. With transparency as my personal policy, I had some concerns regarding the overall play of the Bears’ safeties between 2019 and 2020. The position group as a whole just does not look the same after Ed Donatell’s departure.

Ball production and takeaways in particular plummeted during this time span. In 2018 Eddie Jackson recorded (6) interceptions and (15) PBU’s by himself as a true ballhawk on such a perennial defense. What has the production been as a group since then? The primary trio of Eddie Jackson, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Tashaun Gipson have combined for (6) interceptions. In 2019 the pair of Jackson and Clinton-Dix combined for (10) PBUs, each player recorded five a piece. In 2020, the pair of Jackson and Gipson combined for (14) PBUs, with Gipson recording (9) of his own.

There is a fairly simple counter-argument to my concerns. The whole Bears defense struggled to secure “splash” plays. Pass rush production went WAY down, tackling didn’t look solid at times — dare I say it even looked soft in 2020 — and there were too many “gifts” in would-be interceptions as well as fumbles and sacks which the defense didn’t secure.

Plus, the promotion has been met with much fanfare by those actively connected with the league.

So, does this mean the Bears are keeping everything the same on defense? Not really.

Against popular opinion, controversial even, some new ideas might be needed on the Bears’ scheme. Change seemed like a definitive possibility with how broad the Bears’ search developed in recent weeks. Matt Bowen, to my surprise at least, revealed the Bears have called the same defense schematically between 2018 and 2020.

As I asked Matt, and myself, what the heck happened to this Bears defense?

The ultimate suggestion is a new vision is needed as the Bears’ DC. This is made more apparent when the Bears’ search featured candidates who’s respective schemes contrast completely with what we’ve seen in Chicago. Ironically, this situation looks identical to what happened in 2010 when Lovie Smith faced the same issues on defense.

Ron Rivera left days after the Bears’ loss at Super Bowl XLI as his contract was allowed to expire. Bob Babich, then the team’s linebackers coach, was promoted to the DC role in 2007. That unit saw a sharp decline in takeaways, sacks, “splash plays....” almost like what we’ve seen from 2018 through 2020. Lovie Smith decided to remove the title from Babich, returning him to being a LBs coach, and promoted defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to DC. Marinelli brought his own twists and preferences to the scheme, and the results spoke for themselves.

Sometimes the greatest amount of change on any football team does not come externally. Rather, it comes from within. Sean Desai could very well have suggested this vision during his interview for the DC role. Just because he was promoted, doesn’t mean he has to keep things the same. He’s free, and now empowered, to make whichever changes he deems fit.

Scheme is never as simple as asking, “do we run a 4-3 or a 3-4?” In fact, the fronts themselves are becoming a non-factor with how advanced blended coverage concepts are becoming. Thus why we’re seeing a large number of DB coaches getting promotions to DC around the league.

For example, with every cover 1-4, there are sometimes blended concepts called in between. A “cover 10” — half the field runs cover one and the other cover zero depending on the strength of the field — is becoming trendy. This pairs with the concept of “LOCK coverages” fairly well, where the “strong side” of the field is in man and the “weak side” is in zone. They also look confusing on TV to us fans; that’s the point of blended coverages, to make people guess what you’re truly running.

Brandon Staley, now the LA Chargers’ head coach, ran this “LOCK” concept quite frequently with the Los Angeles Rams. The goal is to create a numbers advantage in the secondary. And, no, this isn’t as simple as dropping eight in coverage. We saw a fair amount of “LOCK” in 2018 under Vic Fangio.

One other possible change we’ll see is a return to more (2)-high safeties looks. Look at Staley and Fangio’s defense, then compare it to Pagano’s.

Sean Desai has been touted as an extremely bright individual. This isn’t reflected in just his doctorate’s degree in educational administration from Temple University. He’s been around a decent mix of different perspectives in six years with Chicago. His understanding of personnel was likely a key factor in the decision to promote him into the DC role.

What does this all mean? Where it’s probable we’ll see a return to basics from the Bears’ 2018 game plans and tactics, we’re likely to see Desai feature his own twists and concepts in coverage. One big hint will come with whomever he recommends to take over as the Bears’ next D-line coach.

Generally, when a new D-line coach is introduced, a major change will come in gap exchange and tendencies to blitz up front. Neither Vic Fangio nor Chuck Pagano featured a lot of all-out blitzes. Fangio in particular believed in a concept known as “violating protections.” Instead of using brute force and numbers, Vic would use alignments and stunts to force offenses in revealing their protection scheme. Then, once the protection is discovered, Fangio will go for the biggest weakness up front.

Jay Rodgers was outstanding in teaching his linemen how to attack protections with various games and stunts in his unit. We could see Desai making a return to those concepts. Or, he could want a more direct pressure concept.

One idea is the concept of “adding numbers” post-snap with delayed or read blitzes. Roquan Smith is one of the most athletically gifted linebackers in the entire league. Danny Trevathan, meanwhile, has played better when attacking downhill. When “adding numbers,” you’re giving the linebackers clearance to go after the QB if the play is available. This will give QBs fits, as provided there’s sound coverage in the secondary and the edge defenders maintain outside contain, it’s almost a free sack every time.

The best news for Desai is he’ll likely have his talented core of defenders at his disposal. Eddie Goldman, barring any unforeseen development, is set to return up front. Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols are as versatile as you could want in any lineman. Of course, we still have veterans Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson looking to rebound after having rough seasons. Oh, and he’ll have a Khalil Mack, too.

With this latest promotion the Bears could be suggesting a return to basics on defense. Or, we could be seeing a great deal of change, led by a coach who has a deep knowledge of his own players beforehand. Either way, expect a different and better performing unit next season. Everybody’s jobs in Halas Hall are counting on that.