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Emma: Bears' Defensive Growth Under Vic Fangio Is Hard To Dismiss

By Chris Emma--

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) -- With his players and coaches gathered before him, Bears coach John Fox went against his form and began reeling off statistics.

Fox is old-school when it comes to stats, often throwing them out the window. But he wanted his Bears to understand the progress they've made defensively.

Arriving after Chicago finished No. 30 in total defense in 2014 in Marc Trestman's final season, Fox saw his group improve to 16th in that metric in his debut season of 2015. Now, the unit ranks seventh in total defense through 12 games this season.

So when later pressed about a column in the Chicago Tribune that suggested friction with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, Fox cited the statistics that show progress and credit his coaching staff.

"I couldn't be more proud of our staff," Fox said. "I'll just leave it at I am very, very pleased with our staff."

Fox brought the report to Fangio on Wednesday in a manner the defensive coordinator described as "nervous," and both denied any sentiment that they wanted a change. Fangio was more emphatic than Fox, calling the reporting "irresponsible" and directly questioning the credibility.

Ultimately, a truth will come at season's end. The Bears (3-9) aren't going to the playoffs, but they've made progress defensively. That's what Fox wanted to make certain with his team Wednesday at they prepare for Sunday's contest against the Lions.

Bears players have followed Fangio's guidance in leading the defense. Many of the defensive players on this team were brought in because of their fit in his 3-4 scheme. There have been successes, like defensive end Akiem Hicks -- the NFC Defensive Player of the Week -- who has shined in his role with this unit.

"This defense has shown signs of greatness," Hicks said. "But we have to put it together for an entire game. Whether we're in a bad situation or not, we still got to come out and put our best foot forward."

If Fangio was forced out and the Bears had to move on, would they rip apart the 3-4 personnel and reboot? That could take several more years.

Progress is undeniable for this Bears defense, clear in the stats Fox reeled off. The identity of Fangio's front seven is developing, with Hicks beginning to reach his potential, linebacker Leonard Floyd leading all rookies in sacks and defensive lineman Eddie Goldman playing well off an ankle injury.

The Bears' issues defensively come in the secondary, where the lack of takeaways is obvious. The team has a minus-9 turnover ratio this season. Fangio expressed his frustration there recently, and players understand it.

"We have to find ways to get the ball -- plain and simple," safety Harold Jones-Quartey said. "That's what we've been missing."

Changes in the secondary are expected this offseason, in what could be considered the third of three phases of rebuilding a defense that was one of the league's worst before Fox and Fangio arrived at Halas Hall. That's general manager Ryan Pace's task, as is sorting through any potential changes on Fox's coaching staff.

Fangio's influence is important with the defense. Hicks came to the Bears with several offers on the table because he believed in what the defense could become. He saw the potential of what Fangio could build. Now, he sees progress.

"We take great pride in every accomplishment we have as a unit," Hicks said. "Week in and week out, our goal is to go out there and shut down the offense. A goal that isn't accomplished every week. But the more you work towards that, the closer you get to it."

Added linebacker Sam Acho: "He's steady. Vic Fangio is steady, and I really respect him for that. He doesn't change. He believes in his convictions, and I respect him for that."

Fox made it known that he intends to retain his entire coaching staff. His words before the cameras and microphones have often not proved to be true, such as recently stating that quarterback Jay Cutler wasn't out for the season before the team shut him down a week later.

In his rebuttal Wednesday, Fangio went after the reporter, who wasn't in the room.

"It gives you guys a bad name," Fangio added.

Finding truths at Halas Hall has been difficult since Fox took over as coach. He has previously refuted reports that have proved to be true. His approach is to offer little insight to the public, speaking with an indirect tone that lacks transparency.

Disagreements are frequent in NFL coaching staffs and front offices. There are philosophical differences that emerge and usually disperse with wins. Both Fox and Fangio have often stated that winning cures all. While the Bears aren't winning, could Fox really dismiss the defensive coordinator whose work he touts?

Fox, 61, is likely on his last head-coaching stop. Fangio, 58, could be retained elsewhere as defensive coordinator should a divorce come from this situation.

Answers will come when this season ends. Fox and Fangio must evaluate their working relationship, while Pace and the franchise's management need to determine the responsibility.

This much is clear: Inside that Bears locker room, the defense believes in the progress being made. Fox does, too, as he stated to the team.

Fangio's impact on this defense is certain. His absence would be devastating.

"I'm so baffled by it," Hicks said. "I couldn't even imagine. We have too good of a thing going. We aren't getting the result that we want, but we know what we're capable of it. The moment that we put that out there on the field, nobody's going to be able to touch us."

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago's sports scene and more for Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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