Can Bears defense continue to make strides without Fangio?
Imagine how good the Bears' defense would be if safety Quintin Demps, inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, outside linebackers Leonard Floyd and Willie Young, and defensive lineman Mitch Unrein were on the field on Saturday instead of on injured reserve.
Even with those players — all starters — sidelined, the 4-9 Bears still rank a respectable 11th in total yards allowed. Imagine where they'd rank if inside linebacker and team leader Danny Trevathan hadn't missed three games with a calf injury and another because of a suspension for a helmet-to-helmet hit. Or if inside linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski wouldn't have missed five games with a chest injury when the Bears needed him to fill in for Freeman.
And what about No. 1 nickel cornerback Bryce Callahan missing four games with a knee injury? And don't forget that safety Adrian Amos missed the past two games with a hamstring injury. He should be back for Saturday's game in Detroit against the 7-6 Lions.
Imagine all of those injured players healthy and ready to roll next year.
Now imagine them without defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, whose contract ends this year. Despite 31 years as an NFL coach (18 as a coordinator), Fangio could be swept out with the housecleaning expected at the end of a fourth straight losing season.
That would be a huge loss for the defense.
“It's just his scheme and how he sets people up for success,” said Unrein, a seven-year veteran. “I feel like the play-calling puts us in the best situations we can be in — calling certain plays in certain situations. He's so meticulous, how he knows what the offense is trying to do at a specific time in the game, whether it be short-yardage, goal line, third-down, first-and-10 where they're at on the field, red zone, all that.”
Fangio was not happy with the way last year's defense limped across the finish line, allowing 109 points in the final three games with a similar number of injuries.
Injuries have hurt this year as well, but Fangio's ability to put players, even backups, in the best situation to maximize their specific skills has helped to cover up shortcomings.
“He probably watches more film than anybody in the building,” Unrein said. “Just with his knowledge and how he tries to get the information out to us is huge. He's a magician out there calling plays.”
Maybe last week's shutdown of the Cincinnati Bengals was an indication this year's group won't fade at the finish, an issue Fangio addressed last week and will again before facing Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and the NFL's No. 4 passing attack.
“You just make them aware of it,” Fangio said. “We've played with good effort, toughness, intensity all year, and we want to continue that.”
Last season, the year-end swoon dropped the Bears to 15th in defense, which still was a huge improvement over the group Fangio took over in 2015 that was ranked 30th the year before. His first defense ranked 14th and was primed to show more improvement last season before stumbling at the end.
“We've had growth,” he said. “Obviously, not in the leaps and bounds that you need, as evidenced by our record, but there has been growth.”
That much was evident last week, when the defense allowed a season-low 234 total yards to the Bengals in a 33-7 thrashing.
“We know what we can do,” said lineman Akiem Hicks, a linchpin of the defense. “We know we can be dominant. We know we can really shut a team down. That was the first time … since I've been here. Just like pummeling them into submission. I would say we want to go out and do it again.”
Fangio says he's interested in seeing the defense reach the next level, but that's likely to be out of his control.
“I like the players we're working with,” he said. “They're really a good bunch of guys. My favorite part of the day is getting up in front of them and watching tape with them, or putting in the defense in for the week. I enjoy being around these guys.”
But for how much longer?
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Missing in action
Games missed by Bears' defensive players due to injuries this season:
OLB Willie Young 12*
S Quintin Demps 13*
ILB Jerrell Freeman 15
OLB Leonard Floyd 6
DL Mitch Unrein 4
ILB Danny Trevathan 4
ILB Nick Kwiatkoski 5
S Adrian Amos 2
OLB Pernell McPhee 1
NT Eddie Goldman 1
Total games missed 63
* total through end of the season, if they remain on I.R.