By Chris Emma—
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) – Thirty-seven years of coaching experience is more than enough for Vic Fangio to gauge what a defense is or can become.
More than any statistic or ranking, Fangio said the eye test is how he judges growth for his Bears.
"To me, it's just what your eyes tell you," Fangio said. "Not what stats tell you."
Fangio is seeing growth for his Bears unit, and the stats agree.
Through six games, The Bears rank sixth in yards surrendered per game, which trails the Broncos, Bengals, Steelers, Panthers and Vikings. They ranked 15th a year ago, 14th in Fangio's first season back in 2015 and 30th during the disastrous 2014 season.
Pro Football Focus sees what Fangio does, ranking the Bears as the NFL's third-best defense.
"No unit has improved like the Chicago Bears have on defense," wrote Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus. "It still has some issues, but it has been undermined by their offense more than most teams, not to mention injuries. They have some impressive grades in coverage across the entire back seven, while the defensive front has been very stout against the run, even if the pass-rush remains a concern."
With the arrival of general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox in 2015 came Fangio, the touted defensive mind tasked with providing the structure with which a beleaguered unit could grow. The Bears' defense had become a laughingstock before Fangio's arrival as coordinator. For a franchise that takes pride in a dominating defense, it was downright embarrassing.
Pace has restocked the cupboards with talent. Akiem Hicks earned a four-year deal worth up to $48 million, and he has five sacks in six games this season. Coupled with Eddie Goldman, the Bears have a dynamic tandem of rushers.
At linebacker, Danny Trevathan has made a major impact alongside Jerrell Freeman and Nick Kwiatkoski, and Leonard Floyd has shown flashes as a premier pass rusher off the edge.
But the biggest difference in the defense this season is in the secondary. Kyle Fuller is having an excellent season while evolving as a cover corner. Prince Amukamara has been an upgrade over what the Bears have tried before at corner. Rookie Eddie Jackson has looked the part of an NFL starting safety, and Adrian Amos finally got off the schneid with his first career interception last Sunday and took it the house.
"Those guys (have) been playing their butt off all year," linebacker Pernell McPhee said of the secondary. "And our front seven (has) been playing great, too."
The Bears have allowed an averag of 24.7 points allowed per game, which ranks 25th in the league. That's largely the byproduct of poor field position – as illustrated by the yardage ranking – but also the unit's two greatest downfalls, which are giving up the big plays and failing to come through with steady takeaways.
Sunday in Baltimore brought a different look from the Bears defense, as it forced three takeaways – including the season's first two interceptions – against Joe Flacco and the Ravens. Amos came through with the biggest play of the game, picking off a pass broken up by Fuller and taking it 90 yards for a touchdown. Bryce Callahan also took advantage of a pass breakup and returned his interception 52 yards.
Both plays proved to be pivotal in a game that otherwise would've been lost. It's what the Bears need to prove their place among the league's best defenses.
Fangio is running the same playbook since he arrived in Chicago, but he's calling plays with greater trust than 2015. Goldman has seen that evolve since his rookie season. The talent has increased along the way, and so has the cohesiveness with the group.
"We got more comfortable with the system," Goldman said. "We're communicating better. We just got to get the turnovers."
With the Bears starting a rookie in Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback and the offense not proving capable of posting big numbers, the team is relying upon the defense for a chance at victory. The Bears need to force turnovers, manage the field position and avoid giving up the big play, and they're looking capable of that task.
Growth is occurring right before Fangio's eyes.
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