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All the right moves for Bears’ Sean Desai

The Bears’ defense appears to have new life thanks in no small part to a few bright cornerstones, and their young coordinator.

NFL: AUG 03 Chicago Bears Training Camp Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If there’s one aspect of team-building the Bears can seemingly never get wrong, it’s defense. If you haven’t heard, watched, or speculated, the Bears have a good defense. Again. What else is new?

A unit many expected to take another step back through five games is instead among the NFL’s very best. Two years of precipitous decline following a historic 2018 campaign was supposed to mean a descent into mediocrity this year, into a side of the ball that needed a bit more than a retool. Yet, here the Bears’ defenders are, in October, flexing their muscles on (most) any offense who dares not be prepared for what they bring to the table.

This success is in no small part thanks to new defensive coordinator, Sean Desai. The 38-year-old first-year coordinator is pushing all the right buttons. A few stars are playing their big parts, but this isn’t the most talented defense, per se. This is a product of a coach who knows how to use his toys. As a result, as usual, the Bears are winning with a ball-control offense that protects and amplifies their primary team strength — their defense.

Suppose this sort of play stays consistent and level through the 2021 season, where Desai is always maximizing his talent while covering any glaring holes well. In that case, he’ll be a popular head coaching candidate come to the off-season. Between Desai and the Chargers’ Brandon Staley, that newfound Vic Fangio coaching tree is starting to look radiant.

Make no mistake: it’ll be difficult for the Bears to retain Desai’s services, barring a promotion. (There’s only one job left he could take on the Halas Hall ladder.)

Such is life with rising coaching stars.

Desai by the numbers

  • The Bears are No. 5 in Football Outsiders’ overall defensive DVOA efficiency metric. Only the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, and Arizona Cardinals’ defenses have fared better.
  • Despite facing Matthew Stafford, Joe Burrow, Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff (at least from a stat-padding perspective), and Derek Carr, which helps amount to the 11th-hardest schedule for a defense, the Bears are No. 4 in defensive passing DVOA.
Table courtesy of Football Outsiders.
  • Despite often using one traditional off-ball linebacker, Roquan Smith, while mainly displaying a three-safety big nickel look, and not having space-eaters like Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman for extended portions of time — the Bears are No. 11 in defensive rushing DVOA.
  • In what can undoubtedly be attributed to having one of, if not the NFL’s top edge duo, Chicago leads the NFL in sacks with 18.
  • As part of a direct result of that edge duo, the Bears are also only surrendering 332.4 passing yards per game. Fifteen years ago, in a different game, this would have been a paltry performance. In 2021, that mark is good for eighth-least in the NFL.
  • When teams do try to run the ball on the Bears, they’re averaging a mere 3.9 yards per carry, also good for eighth-least in the NFL.
  • Opposing offenses, meanwhile, have only converted 97 total first downs against Chicago, which would be seventh-least in the NFL.
  • Good defenses find a way to get possessions for their offense, as anyone who follows the Bears would know. The Bears are sound here, too, with seven takeaways in five games, ninth in the NFL.
  • That 1.4 takeaway per game pace would’ve placed the Bears firmly in the top-10 in takeaways last season, 17th game this year be damned.

Big nickel fun

Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

I alluded to it in the bullet points, but I think Desai’s favorite look, the big-nickel formation (three safeties, three corners, one true inside linebacker), is one of the chief coaching reasons for his unit’s triumph’s thus far. I don’t want to knock on Alec Ogletree, who by many accounts has been a fine, competent signing for someone acquired so late in the summer. But there’s a reason he’s on his fourth team in as many seasons: He can be exploited, and he’s not good enough to be used more.

Desai’s usage of Ogletree reflects what he thinks of the 30-year-old linebacker. 67 percent of the defensive snaps isn’t a sign of wholesale trust in a partnership between Ogletree and a dynamic player like Roquan Smith. To compensate and support Smith better, Desai has elected to tap in what seems like pro football’s deepest safety room all of a sudden. Between Eddie Jackson, Deon Bush, and Tashaun Gipson, each has played at least 50 percent of the defensive snaps. Meanwhile, DeAndre Houston-Carson has played on over 19 percent of the snaps, which, Dear Reader, is a lot for a fourth safety.

The reliance of Desai on his safeties better protects his young cornerback room, arguably the Bears’ primary defensive weakness. While Jaylon Johnson looks like a superstar, his contemporary on the other boundary, Kindle Vidor, and nickel cornerback, Duke Shelley, have had more downs than ups in their first real full-time action. Ask Ja’Marr Chase, and uh, Jared Goff? Yikes.

An extra safety on the field means the Bears can shade one of them over and give Vildor or Shelley extra help underneath or over the top when they deem it necessary. That’s when that extra safety isn’t up in the box, of course.

Suffice to say: This is where both Smith and Johnson’s respective values as cornerstones shine.

Smith being capable of essentially covering the bottom-to-middle third of the field on his own, while Desai trusts Johnson to take away one boundary altogether, gives the Bears more flexibility on defense. When you have two cornerstones like these two, two stars that let you protect your lesser still-developing players, you’ll probably succeed. None of this creative scheme would work if the Bears didn’t have Johnson and Smith operating at peak capacity. If someone such as Vildor blossoms into a competent No. 2 cornerback (while he’s been okay, his 99 percent snap count is more indicative of the Bears having no one else to play on the outside), watch out.

The Mack-Quinn Effect

Chicago Bears v Las Vegas Raiders Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images

Of course, none of what happens on the back-end would be possible without Khalil Mack and ... Robert Quinn?

The former in Mack has started to look like the perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate the Bears traded for again.

  • In 32 starts from 2019-2020 (1,819 snaps), Mack had a total of 27 quarterback hits, 19 tackles for loss, and 17.5 sacks.
  • In five starts this season (215 snaps and only 65 percent of the total snaps played so far), Mack has seven quarterback hits, five sacks, and five tackles for loss.

Quite the turn of events, and turning of turnstile tackles.

I do think that, unfortunately, we’ve seen the peak of the future Hall of Famer. His playing on only two-thirds of the snaps so far while seemingly consistently appearing on the weekly injury report with practice limitations over the past 2.5 years tells me his nagging health has taken away of some of that burst, some of his prime steps. Some games he might not have “it,” depending on how his body feels. I also highly doubt you ever see him play on over 86 percent of the total defensive snaps again, like in 2018, which in hindsight was a mistake of snap management.

If Mack can still be dominant in a more limited capacity, I’m not confident any offensive tackle doesn’t have a chill go down their spine when they see him line up across from their mug. Even at a slightly lesser level, he’s a star edge defender. My hunch is the Bears become more selective in his deployment as he ages, depending on the game (See: this year against the Rams, Bengals, and Raiders).

As for Robert Quinn: What more can be said?

After a disappointing 2020 debut with the Bears, the 31-year-old’s resurgence is arguably the most significant reason the rest of the unit is holding it together. That’s as a run defender screaming off the edge and hustling back to make plays across the field. And it’s as a pass rusher seeing more double teams, allowing an exceptional talent like Mack to see more single blocks. If the Quinn of 2020 made his (unwelcome) return this season, I don’t think it’s a stretch to note that the Bears’ defense likely would’ve experienced the fall from grace most thought was on the horizon. There’s only so much you can scheme around and hide with merely one quality edge man. Eventually, a band-aid isn’t going to suffice to stop the bleeding from a gaping wound. Instead, I would posit that this elite version of Quinn has extended the window of the 2018 championship-level defense, once thought closed, by at least another 1.5 seasons if all else holds.

Through five games, Quinn has six quarterback hits, 4.5 sacks, and three tackles for loss. In 15 games last year, he had a total of six quarterback hits, two sacks, and zero tackles for loss. It turns out a foot injury that nagged at him for months really did rob him of his physical gifts. The Quinn of 2021 is the player the Bears gave $30 million guaranteed in the last off-season: a blue-chip edge defender.

Where Desai factors in is in how he moves the two veterans around his defensive front. It’s a lot easier to account for players like Mack and Quinn if they stay in the same position throughout a game. If they stay in the same spots, one can be double-teamed while the other is single-blocked, with a chip sprinkled in, and the offense drops 30-plus points. They might still win a few reps because of how talented they are, but it’s to a lesser extent. The chaos they can create is bottled up, controlled, like two wasps caught in a mason jar. If you move them around, be it inside, paired next to each other instead of on opposite sides, switch their sides, or have more creative stunts and twists in your bag of tricks, the better chance you have of one seeing a favorable matchup more regularly and destroying a play.

That’s exactly what Desai has afforded Mack and Quinn: he’s put them in a consistent position for a favorable matchup. He hasn't allowed offensive fronts and quarterbacks calling out protections to get comfortable with this duo’s positioning, and it’s paid off with tremendous dividends. It’s academic: The less Mack and Quinn see a double-team or chip off alignment alone, the more likely they end up in the backfield.

Recent years have seen some contend that quality coverage is more important than a quality pass rush, considering how quickly some quarterbacks release the ball. I’m not necessarily a non-believer of such a notion (it depends on if the quarterback is capable of a consistent hot read, which, anecdotally, roughly only ten or so are).

The 2021 Bears, with only one plus-linebacker and only one plus-cornerback, have somewhat refuted that hypothesis because of Mack, Quinn, and their puppeteer, Desai.

The road ahead

Indianapolis Colts v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

I’d be lying if I said I thought the way Desai’s Bears defense has played so far to be entirely sustainable. Not every underlying statistic screams sunshine and rainbows.

  • Fifth-smallest quarterback pressure percentage at 21.6 percent (sacks are good, pressures are better!)
  • Fifth-smallest quarterback hurry percentage at 7.1 percent (sacks are good, pressures are better!)
  • Ninth-highest average depth of targeted defender at 8.9 (meaning quarterbacks generally have the time and openings to attack the Bears downfield, if they want to)
  • Ninth-highest average yards allowed per pass attempt at 8.0
  • 10th-highest third-down conversion rate at 43.1 percent (the Bears are almost worse than the abysmal Chiefs in this aspect!)

All of these marks will have to improve if the Bears, as I expect, will continue to lean on their defense over the next few months. Getting off the field on third down and pressure percentage should be two areas of paramount importance for Desai.

A lack of sustainability isn’t to say that I expect them to drop off a cliff. It’s more that I think performances like the efforts against the Rams and Browns are still totally in the realm of possibility. Offenses equipped to take advantage of their weaknesses will not be as kind as the Cincinnati’s and Detroit’s of the world. In other words, improved competition means more variance. An insane thing to say, I understand.

What does that equipped offense resemble? As with any successful attack, they have a great front capable of creating in the ground game and pushing Mack and Quinn around, if need be. Anyone who can run the ball with size and bully their smaller big-nickel look will definitely move the ball on the Bears. (See: Cleveland, and Detroit did it if you’ll recall). That offense also has a quarterback who releases the ball quickly with composure into the proper read more often than not, and won’t let inexperienced players like Vildor and Shelley off lightly. Generally, that distinction has not applied to a few of the more easily-rattled quarterbacks Chicago has faced to this stage.

As a first wholesale test, Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones, and the Packers’ stellar offensive line this Sunday are an excellent example of a powerful counter to this Bears unit. Looking down the line, I also don’t like how the Bears match up against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens (especially), Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, and Kyler Murray and the Cardinals. These are all complete offenses with star quarterbacks who will make you pay for the slightest mistakes, who will attack your vulnerabilities with no mercy. (In a credit to the Bears, not many defenses match up well against these offenses anyway.)

Like any good cafeteria chef, Sean Desai has made chicken salad out of chicken shit of his defense. There will be more struggles to come, but I don’t anticipate the Bears dropping out of the top-10 in most relevant defensive efficiency marks by January. That should be appreciated, considering where expectations were before the season. A stout core of stars consisting of Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, Jaylon Johnson, and Robert Quinn, buoyed by a smart coach that knows how to maximize and cover for his arsenal of talent, is not a defense to be overlooked.