Fangio on Chicago Bears defense: I think it's improved

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) is hit by Chicago Bears inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman (50) during the second half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.

    Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) is hit by Chicago Bears inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman (50) during the second half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Oct. 9, 2016.

 
 
Updated 12/28/2016 7:22 PM

Former Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Terry Shea was asked to grade his performance after his crew scored 76 points in the final seven games of the 2004 season.

"B-plus," Shea said, leaving reporters either dumbstruck or thinking they had misheard the answer, while opening himself up to ridicule.

 

Vic Fangio's defense has performed much better in his two years than Shea's offense did, but he's still far too wise to answer a similar no-win question.

"The only thing I will say is, I think it's improved," Fangio said of his defense. "I don't know what grade you want to put on that, but when you've won as few games as we've won (three), our fingerprints are on that, too."

Fangio hasn't used as an excuse the slew of injuries that have plagued the Bears. The upside is that coaches have gotten a long look at players who could be part of the future.

"We've played a lot of guys, a lot of young guys," Fangio said. "They've gotten a lot of experience, and hopefully they'll be able to build on that as we move forward."

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At one time or another, the Bears have started 12 players who are 25 or younger this season, seven of whom are 23 or younger.

Some of those young players got starts on merit, while others were out of necessity, but either way it's still valuable experience.

"A lot of guys have gotten a lot of playing time, which is good and bad because some of them were forced to get the playing time," Fangio said.

"But there are guys that have made improvement, and I think can be good players for us moving forward that weren't here last year.

"So hopefully (next year) we're not looking to overhaul everything."

That would seem to indicate Fangio's return next year, several weeks after rumors circulated that he and head coach John Fox would split after the season.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Fangio refuted that speculation then and on Wednesday said, "Nothing's changed."

This year's crop of unrestricted free agents includes relatively young players who could play key roles for a long time after thriving in Fangio's defense.

Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks (27 years old) has enjoyed his best season, and linebacker Danny Trevathan (26) played well before suffering a serious knee injury that makes him a question mark for next season.

Even 30-year-old Jerrell Freeman provides optimism for the future. Despite serving a four-game PED suspension, he leads the Bears in tackles by a wide margin.

"On an individual basis, some are doing well," Fangio said. "As a unit, we're not there yet -- obviously. But I think the groundwork has been laid.

"There's been some foundation laid, and we've gotten a lot of guys playing time. On an individual basis, there's some brightness there."

Before breakdowns on all three levels of the defense the past two weeks, the Bears had climbed to some lofty levels in key statistical rankings. Sunday's season finale in Minnesota against the Vikings provides a bounce-back opportunity.

After 13 or 14 games (statistically), it was looking a little bit better than it is now," Fangio said. "We've improved in some areas -- obviously not enough, with our record the way it is."

• Follow Bob's Bears reports on Twitter @BobLeGere.

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