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Emma: Bears Making Progress Toward Their Defensive Identity

By Chris Emma--

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) -- Every so often, Bears coach John Fox points to the results-based business of the NFL. Ultimately, that's how teams, coaches and players are measured.

But progress can't be ignored, too -- even if Fox won't use the media to say it. Fox refuses to use his words to get too high or low on his 2-7 team. When asked about finishing the season strong last week, he pointed out his Bears could also finish 2-14. Fair enough, coach.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio doesn't work like Fox in that regard. He's brutally honest at all times, a refreshing change of pace. So, take Fangio's words on the defense as a fair comparison to his expectation.

"Our guys are playing hard," Fangio said. "I think they're playing together. I think they're playing with good purpose and intentions.

"Our guys have good fighting spirit, good togetherness and an allegiance to each other."

Translation: That's not good enough.

Fangio, who's viewed as one of the game's defensive masterminds, was brought to the Bears with the hopes that he could reshape this franchise's defensive identity. In short time, his defense has made improvements from the abyss it reached in 2014. Credit general manager Ryan Pace for finding young talent that fits Fangio's schemes and the assistant who have helped develop it.

But Fangio has much higher aspirations for his defense. His units in San Francisco were annually among the league's best. Fangio's front sevens were relentless in attacking the backfield. That's what he expects in Chicago.

First comes getting "pissed off," as edge rusher Pernell McPhee indicated recently.

"We're 2-7," McPhee said Wednesday. "We have to face those facts."

Games like Sunday's in Tampa illustrate the inconsistencies of this Bears defense. It held the Buccaneers to 164 yards in the first half and contained quarterback Jameis Winston.

The Bears defense has surrendered 23.9 points per game, ranking 19th in the NFL. Their 341.2 yards allowed per game are good for 11th. Both figures are massive changes from the 2014 season in which the unit hit rock bottom.

None of what occurred in 2014 matters to Fangio, who came with Fox a month after that gruesome season came to a close. His expectations are higher.

Given Fangio's background in building a defense, players are constantly confident. They believe that executing what Fangio puts before them is all that's needed to bring success.

"Vic, his preparation is next level," Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks said. "The amount of film he has broken down, the game plan and how he sets it up for us, it's pretty much look at it and go out there and play. Just be able to work in the schemes that he sets forth. It's beautiful to have a coordinator such as that."

In reality, Fangio's words resonate to what's needed for the Bears' defense. Players are confident in themselves and each other. They won't admit the weakness of their unit -- the secondary.

Pace built this defense with the resources available by forging a new identity up front. Hicks, McPhee, Eddie Goldman, Willie Young, Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman are the foundational pieces for the defense's future. A steady pass rush was formed to ideally create opportunities in the secondary.

The Bears are eighth in the NFL in sacks with 24, and they've generated pressure all season. However, their young defensive backfield has just five interceptions. The three fumble recoveries makes for eight turnovers in nine games -- not good enough. Pace has been scouting Michigan star Jabrill Peppers as a possibility to make the Bears' defense great again.

Stronger play in the secondary could come with another draft from Pace and further development of the young players who occupy Halas Hall.

Hicks came to the Bears as one of Pace's first phone calls this past March, the five-technique his young defense needed. He turned 27 on Wednesday and hadn't played his best football until this season. Pace believed in Hicks, and Hicks believed in Pace.

"It was really a no-brainer for me to come here and play for the city of Chicago," Hicks said.

"Knowing that we're going to have the capabilities on defense to be interchangeable, to do different stunts, get up the field and make plays, that was really appetizing to me. To know that all that's coming to fruition now and we're getting better as a defense, you can't put a measurement on that."

Slowly but surely, Pace's overhaul of the Bears' defensive depth chart is bringing better play. Pace is stocking the kitchen for chef Fangio, who has cooked up dominating defenses in the past.

The Bears hope they can soon have a defense that's physical and nasty in getting to the football. Pressure will be a constant if things go right. Takeaways will come naturally.

"You know you're a great defense when it doesn't matter what happens on the other side of the ball -- that you come out there and you're the best defense on the field, and you're putting their offense in bad positions," Hicks said. "It doesn't matter what is going on in any other phase but your defense. That's how you know you're a good defense."

Chicago knows all about that defense. Such an identity created quite the legacy for the Bears organization. It's Fangio who has been tasked with fostering this once again.

Take Fangio at his word -- there's still great work to be done. But perhaps the Bears are closer to the results they want.

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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