Absolutely, Matt Nagy said, the Chicago Bears have the best defense in the NFL.
It doesn’t take a leap of faith for him to declare that with a healthy Akiem Hicks back on the line, Danny Trevathan re-signed at inside linebacker and the addition of Robert Quinn to beef up the pass rush to the level it was at two seasons ago when the Bears had 50 sacks, the most for the franchise since 1987.
Now, it’s time to see if Nagy is prepared to coach as the leader of the team with the most vicious defense in the league.
It’s going to require Nagy to subjugate his ego as an offensive wiz, a guy who was hired to develop Mitch Trubisky into a top-tier quarterback. It’s going to require a level of adaptation to not only redesign how the offense operates but how he manages games — aspects that were missing in 2019 when the offense was a season-long wreck. The best coaches find ways to accentuate strengths of their roster while minimizing deficiencies, and that’s the challenge Nagy not only has to accept but must conquer.
The elimination of the preseason because of COVID-19 made the quarterback competition difficult to judge but now that the regular season has arrived, do the Bears have an edge in that nothing new Nagy has in the works has been put on film? No tweaks to the running game or blocking schemes have been revealed. The same can be said for the other 31 teams, but Nagy has hinted to changes we’ll soon see.
The coach has been coy about a potential schematic evolution on offense, sidestepping questions about the running game that must become a strength. Not only was the rushing attack bad, but as Nagy was averse to calling running plays as evidenced by the seven handoffs in a blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints, a franchise-low in 100 seasons.
Will there be a different emphasis with Trubisky named the starting QB? Will there be more opportunities to use his athleticism? Will the hiring of Juan Castillo as offensive line coach and run game coordinator make a difference with a starting unit that returns four of five starters from a sub-par unit? Will Nagy keep in my mind that plays he calls could impact his defense? It’s fun to explore Nagy’s roots with Andy Reid and look at the Kansas City Chiefs offense, but it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison because the personnel is widely different.
For all the ways that Nagy detailed Trubisky’s improvements, he has coached the quarterback through 30 starts, including the playoffs, and cannot realistically expect a dramatically different player in 2020. That would be obtuse even by Bears quarterback standards.
What Nagy can do is reshape his projection for Trubisky, rethink his offense and evolve as a play caller. The Bears had an elite defense in 2018 and a good one a year ago, and the team’s largest investments this offseason were extending the contract of Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson and signing Quinn. While all the talk was about the offense, more resources were poured into the defense, a clue to how the Bears are approaching the season and maybe how Nagy is embracing the challenge ahead.
Flashback to the draft when cameras showed Nagy at a table in the middle of a room in his north suburban house with play call sheets from games all over the walls. “Be You” is in the corner of the cards. It will be fascinating to see who Nagy wants to be this season. There was plenty of blame to go around last season, some of it on Nagy, and he set out to find solutions as soon as the season ended because the jump that was supposed to happen for his offense going into Year 2 never happened. The Bears went sideways, then backward, not forward.
“I feel like last year defensively that we played a lot better than probably the numbers resulted in,” Nagy said. “In regards to the offense … the biggest thing is when you look back, we never established who we were. We never had an identity. We were too inconsistent in different areas. There might be one game where we are able to establish and get the run game going with certain run schemes, but then the next week we don’t have that same scheme, it’s a different scheme or we rely a lot more on RPOs.
“So this year that’s going to be a theme for us and doing that is being able to see who we have as players and how we adapt to them.”
There is precedent for offensive-minded coaches leading teams with superior defenses to a Lombardi Trophy. Since 2000, Gary Kubiak did it with the 2015 Denver Broncos (16th in total offense, 19th in scoring and 1st in total defense, 4th in points allowed), Jon Gruden with the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (24th and 18th, 1st and 1st) and Brian Billick with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens (16th and 14th, 2nd and 1st). All were hired because of their acumen as offensive play callers. All were smart enough to coach to the strength of their rosters.
“When you do it that way (with a dominant defense and average offense), and the numbers are there, the mantra is: ‘Yeah, but did you win?’” Billick said in the lead up to Super Bowl XXXV. “Now, when you win it’s, ‘Where are the numbers?’ I’ll take the win any way you can get it.”
When Nagy considers how he can best adapt to his players, maybe he sees a defense with a ton of experience. The Bears are 20th in the NFL in terms of salary cap space committed to offensive players. But they’re third in cap space for defensive players with only the Broncos and Arizona Cardinals ahead of them.
The identity of the team is one forged by the defense. Now, the coach has to consider things such as time of possession, realize that a punt at the end of a stalled drive isn’t always a poor outcome and coach like a guy who wants to win with his defense, numbers be damned, while he sets out to discover an identity for his offense.
Jeff Okudah, Detroit Lions CB
Information for this report was obtained from NFL scouts.
Jeff Okudah, 6-foot-1, 202 pounds, is a rookie from Ohio State. Drafted third overall, he is the first cornerback to be selected in the top three picks since the Seattle Seahawks chose Shawn Springs No. 3 in 1997.
It has become unusual for defensive backs to be selected that high — Okudah is just the 12th cornerback to go in the top five in the last 30 drafts — because teams place a greater priority on elite players on the defensive line or pass rushers. That is where the Lions were deficient last season as Trey Flowers and Devon Kennard (seven sacks each) were the team’s only players with more than two.
Flowers is back but Kennard departed for the Cardinals in free agency, and the Lions have done little to add pass rushers. In fairness to GM Bob Quinn, who traded away his best cornerback Darius Slay a month prior to the draft, there wasn’t an edge rusher that was a consensus top-10 pick. However, some thought Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown (No. 7 to the Carolina Panthers) would be a good fit.
“They’re going to have to scheme things up for Flowers,” the scout said. “He’s more speed to power, that’s his move. He doesn’t have great twitch on the edge. He doesn’t have great bend on the edge either, so a guy like that, you have to scheme up pass rushes. That means bringing five or using twist-stuns to occupy a blocker to get Flowers loose in a clear rush lane or helps get him matched up against a guard. They’re going to have to be creative and it’s one thing Detroit didn’t do a lot last year and that’s why the Lions hung their secondary out to dry consistently playing Cover-1. It’s very hard to cover that long against NFL wide receivers when you can’t get pressure on the QB. Very questionable scheme. If they can’t get there with four, they gotta bring five. If they can’t get there with five, bring six. You have to take care of your secondary.
“I would have traded down from No. 3, maybe they tried. I would have got out of that spot so fast. Okudah is a good football player and he fits what they want to do but they had Darius Slay last year, a top-10 cornerback, and you’re just replacing him with a young kid. They needed to get an edge rusher somehow or picked one in the second round, which brings into question why they drafted (running back) D’Andre Swift and then they go sign Adrian Peterson.
“Okudah was the premier, No. 1 man cover corner in the draft. He’s got really good footwork. Really loose hips. Great short area speed. He can play man coverage from press, off, bump inside to the slot and he’s got a pretty good feel for zone coverage too. I think he’s a good player, without question the No. 1 DB in the draft class and he’s coming from a program that produces a ton of talent. I really liked him. I just question taking a corner at No. 3.”
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