Coach Matt Nagy knew that new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano would mesh well with Bears players and coaches, and that’s been evident throughout the first six weeks of the team’s offseason program.
“He connects so well with the players,” Nagy said Wednesday after the Bears conducted their second of 10 OTA practices. “He connects so well with his coaches. He’s a big communicator; that’s one of his biggest strengths.”
Pagano was hired in January to replace Vic Fangio, who left the Bears after four seasons as defensive coordinator to become Broncos head coach. Pagano boasts 16 years of NFL coaching experience. He most recently served as Colts head coach from 2012-17, compiling a 53-43 regular-season record while leading Indianapolis to three straight playoff appearances.
During a one-year hiatus from coaching in 2018, Pagano was impressed with the Bears defense while watching from afar—and those feelings have only been reinforced since he began working with players in mid-April. On Wednesday, Pagano raved about the unit’s talent, high football character and football IQ.
“They’ve been really good,” Pagano said. “They’ve been intentional. They’ve been deliberate. We talk about, ‘Be where your feet are,’ so they’ve been engaged. You can tell we’ve thrown a lot at them. That’s on purpose. We’re throwing a lot of mud at the wall and seeing what sticks. But they’ve done a great job. There’s good retention. You don’t see a lot of mental errors. We’ve got a long way to go obviously. But they’re doing a great job.”
After reviewing the first OTA practice Tuesday, Pagano was pleased with the grasp his players seem to have on the system.
“You go in and you grade the tape, and if we have a bunch of mental errors down-after-down-after-down and we’ve got guys running free through the back end, then you say, ‘OK, maybe we need to pump the brakes, slow down,’” Pagano said. “That didn’t happen Day 1. There’s going to be stuff to clean up. There’s going to be mistakes made. But again, these guys have done a great job to this point.”
Pagano inherits a Bears defense that led the NFL last season in points per game (17.7), takeaways (36), interceptions (27), interception return touchdowns (5), opponent passer rating (72.9) and rushing yards per game (80.0).
Ten of the 11 starters return, including four who were voted to the Pro Bowl in outside linebacker Khalil Mack, tackle Akiem Hicks, cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson. The only new projected starter is safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who was signed as a free agent.
Pagano reiterated Wednesday that he plans to mesh some of his philosophies with what the defense did under Fangio.
“We’re still working through that,” Pagano said. “It would be foolish on my part not to have some carryover considering what they’ve done. Vic and I were together at one point in Baltimore, so there are some common threads that run through both systems, and that’s a good thing for these guys and myself.”
Expectations are high for the Bears defense, but Nagy cautioned that patience will be required.
“Is this thing going to happen overnight? Absolutely not,” Nagy said. “[Pagano] knew that coming in here we had one of the best defenses in the NFL, and he knows what kind of challenge that is because there’s expectations not just from the media and from the fanbase but from his own players. They know what they did under Vic’s regime and his coaching staff.
“I think that’s going to be really neat to watch organically happen, but there’s got to be some patience involved there.”
Nagy, who installed a new offense last season in his first year as coach, was asked what he wants the defense to accomplish by the end of the offseason program.
“Just for them to be able to get to training camp where they can break the huddle and know his system,” Nagy said. “You want to try to pick up the speed as much as you can, but there are going to be times where he has to in his first year pull back a little bit and make sure that they can execute their assignments, and he’s got to have some realistic expectations, too, that there might be a couple screwups here or there.”
Those miscues no doubt will be reduced as players continue to transfer what they learn in the classroom onto the practice field. With the offseason program entering its third and final phase this week, the offense has been permitted to compete against the defense for the first time.
“Phase 1 and Phase 2, you really can’t do much,” Pagano said. “You do a lot of mental stuff, a lot of walkthrough. Now that we have an opportunity to line up across from somebody, we’re just figuring out where we’re at and what we have. It’s a great opportunity for the guys to see where they’re at from a mental standpoint, see where they’re at from a physical standpoint and just try to come out here every day to get better.”