Chuck Pagano has discovered that the Bears defense—which led the NFL in several key categories in 2018—is just as impressive on tape as it is on paper.
Hired as defensive coordinator Jan. 11 to replace the departing Vic Fangio, Pagano has spent his first few weeks on the job studying video cutups of the unit.
“I know that from a personnel standpoint, they’ve done a great job with the roster,” Pagano said Thursday night on the “Bears All Access” radio show on WSCR-AM 670. “They’ve got playmakers on all three levels.”
Pagano inherits a defense that helped the Bears win the NFC North title with a 12-4 record in 2018. The unit led the NFL in fewest points per game (17.7), most takeaways (36), most interceptions (27), most interception return touchdowns (5), lowest opponent passer rating (72.9) and fewest rushing yards per game (80.0).
“They did great things,” Pagano said. “Anytime that you can take the ball away the way that they did, affect the quarterback the way that they did, stop the run better than anybody in the league, you’re going to have a chance week-in and week-out to win every game.”
Pagano has 16 years of NFL coaching experience. He most recently spent six seasons as Colts head coach from 2012-17, compiling a record of 53-43 in the regular season and 3-3 in the playoffs. He led Indianapolis to three straight playoff berths from 2012-14, including two division titles and an appearance in the 2014 AFC Championship Game.
Prior to joining the Colts, Pagano spent four seasons with the Ravens, serving as Baltimore’s defensive backs coach from 2008-10 and defensive coordinator in 2011.
During his radio appearance Thursday night, Pagano mentioned the names of all 11 Bears starters on defense plus several key reserves.
Pagano was initially asked about tackle Akiem Hicks. The 6-5, 332-pounder was voted to his first Pro Bowl in 2018 after leading the Bears with 12 tackles-for-loss and ranking second with 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and 16 quarterback hits.
“There’s a giant of a man right there,” Pagano said. “He’s a true game-wrecker. Watching the tape, when he goes and he’s full speed, he destroys people and there’s not one guy that can block him one-on-one.”
Pagano lauded the depth on the defensive line and the ability of outside linebackers Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd to rush the passer. Mack led the Bears with 12.5 sacks in 2018, while Floyd added 4.0 sacks.
“You’ve got to be able to affect the quarterback and you’ve got to have pass rushers and we’ve got the best in the business in Mack,” Pagano said. “Leonard Floyd is a long, athletic, wiry-type guy that can get after the quarterback. And when they do drop in coverage—which is going to be just a little bit of the time; you want them going forward—they can still do that, they’re athletic enough.”
Pagano is also a fan of starting inside linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan, who finished 1-2 in tackles on the defense, respectively, in 2018.
“Danny’s a veteran guy,” Pagano said. “He’s a leader of that group back there. He’s the communicator. He ties that front to the back end and does a great job.
“Roquan, for a rookie coming in, I just expect nothing but that kid to grow and get better and better as he learns and understands this game and understands the NFL. He’s a talented guy who can play downhill against the run. You can match him up in coverages.
“We know that it’s a matchup league and to be able to have guys like that that you don’t have to take off the field—they can play all three downs—that’s a bonus.”
Pagano called safety Eddie Jackson “a rising star” and sees some of the same traits in Jackson that former Ravens star Ed Reed possessed. Pagano spent four seasons in Baltimore coaching Reed, a nine-time Pro Bowler and a safety, ironically, that Jackson admired while growing up.
“Ed Reed is going to be a first ballot Hall of Famer and had an amazing career,” Pagano said. “Being around Ed for a long time, [he] had some traits that Eddie has.
“[Jackson] is a ballhawk. He’s instinctive, he gets a jump on the ball, he’s an anticipator; all those things you look for in a true post safety. And then when you bring him down in the box, he’s nifty. He can time up some pressures and things like that.”
Pagano reiterated what he told reporters at his introductory press conference last Thursday; that he will mix elements from his scheme with what the Bears did under Fangio, who left the team to become head coach of the Denver Broncos.
“The terminology part of it, that’s always a challenge,” Pagano said. “I said I’d put it more on myself and the new coaches to adapt and try to merge the two schemes together the best we can. There’s some carryover, after watching last year’s tape.
“It’ll just be a matter of meshing the things—me learning some and I’ll challenge the defense and the new coaches and the guys that are returning from last year to learn some stuff. [But] I’ll try to take as much off the players’ plate as possible.”