LAKE FOREST, Ill. - There’s good reason for the Chicago Bears to think some of Vic Fangio’s defensive knowledge rubbed off on new defensive coordinator Sean Desai.
The two were close during Fangio’s time with the Bears as defensive coordinator.
"We were both in the booth and he sat next to me," Desai said. "Well, I sat next to him, I should say. He got to choose where he wanted to sit. I was just put next to him."
Desai is hoping to return his team to playing a style more similar to how they played under Fangio, the current Denver Broncos head coach who was the defensive coordinator in Chicago when the Bears were ranked No. 1 in the NFL in 2018.
"So my analogies may not be great but this is like a tune-up," Desai said. "You know, we’re going to refine some things and make sure our players are playing to their strengths on a consistent basis and they’re going to buy into the system and the whys and the hows of why we’re doing certain things. But we’ve got a good defense. We got really good players here."
This is Desai’s first high-profile job in the league.
Believed to be the first Indian-American coordinator in the NFL, Desai toiled in Bears coaching obscurity for nine seasons as quality control coach or a position coach under three head coaches and three defensive coordinators.
Now he gets to show head coach Matt Nagy how much he learned under Fangio, and former coordinators Chuck Pagano (2019-20) and Mel Tucker (2013-14).
Fangio’s 3-4 defensive style is a hot commodity in the NFL. Former Bears assistant Brandon Staley followed Fangio to Denver, then took the defense to the Los Angeles Rams last year as defensive coordinator and had the top defense in the league. Now he’s head coach for the L.A. Chargers.
"I think you’ve got tools that emphasizes player productivity and really emphasizes team defense," Desai said. "We’re not looking for one guy to win all the time. We’re gonna have opportunities for a lot of guys to win in different situations and I think that’s a valuable thing.
"And I think we can put pressure on the quarterback and opposing offenses in different ways — and we’re gonna do that."
The players on the Bears defense remain largely the same ones they’ve had throughout 2018 to 2020.
Even with Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn and Akiem Hicks healthy most of last season, the Bears dropped off in sacks from 50 in 2018 to 36 in 2019 and then 35 last year. Their takeaway totals have also fallen off, from 36 under Fangio’s defense to 19 and 18 the past two years under Pagano.
"We’re gonna find the roles that fit these guys’ skillets," Desai said. "I think that’s really important. That’s the thing that I learned from all of those coordinators, and I think that Vic was really masterful at that."
The Bears dropped off in run defense the past two years, as well. They were No. 1 in 2018, then ninth and 14th the past two years. Much of this had to do with losing Hicks much of 2019 and then losing Eddie Goldman as an opt-out in 2020 because of the pandemic.
There is no guarantee Goldman is returning for 2021.
"So in regards to Eddie, I have not been given any confirmation," Desai said. "And quite honestly, don’t know when that process or if I get that confirmation, how that works. I think our expectation and his, I think, is that he will want to play because I know he misses it and he wants to be back."
Desai has never been a defensive coordinator at any level, although he was a special teams coordinator at Temple and Boston College during brief coaching stints before coming to Chicago in 2013.
To assistant an inexperienced coordinator, the Bears have enlisted help in the form of former Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as the new senior defensive assistant.
"I think that’s a great thing for me as a first-time defensive play-caller, is to have some other perspectives in," Desai said.
If the 3-4 scheme the Bears play will remain the same, so too will their style of play.
"It’s going to be something that’s palpable, whether you’re watching the tape, whether you’re watching at home or whether you’re in the stadium, and a thing that you can feel," Desai said. "Our physicalness, you can feel toughness, you can feel discipline, you can feel a sense of swarming to the ball and finishing."