There's nothing unique in saying, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And yet the Bears new defensive coaching staff faces a wholly unique challenge: Take a unit that seemingly can't work any better and find a way to do exactly that.
Fortunately, Deshea Townsend has a unique advantage entering his new post as Bears secondary coach this season. Sure, he inherited a group that led the league in interceptions and passer rating and includes three former first-rounders, two first-team All Pros and an ex-Pro Bowler in search of redemption.
But also at the disposal of Townsend, formerly a team captain at Alabama and 13-year NFL veteran junkyard dog defensive back, is a pair of Super Bowl rings as a member of the 2005 and 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers. Among his current group, only Prince Amukamara can begin to compare jewelry.
Those Steelers defenses Townsend was an instrumental part of never led the NFL in takeaways, never mind by a wide margin the way the Bears did last season, but they did twice pace the league in fewest points allowed, as Chicago did last season.
“One thing I tell them is I can go back over … I showed them stats when I played, or just the defenses over the years and how hard it is to do it back to back,” Townsend said this spring. “So the most important thing is not to worry about last year. That’s last year. How can we get better?”
The first time Townsend’s Steelers defense led the league in fewest points allowed, during their 15-1 season in 2004 that ended after an AFC title game defeat in Foxborough, they followed it up by permitting close to a half-point more per game (15.7 to 16.1) but won the Super Bowl after an 11-5 wild-card season.
However, after winning their second Super Bowl four years later, when they again led the league in scoring during the regular season, the Steelers dropped to No. 12 in points allowed and missed the playoffs following a 9-7 campaign.
“We all know in this business, and coach Nagy talks about it: you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse,” Townsend said. “So we’ll look at what they did well, and we’ll also look at what they didn’t do well, and how can we make that better.”
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a fellow Bama product, said the standard Townsend is holding the Bears secondary to is clear.
“Man, it means a lot. You know he's seen a lot of ball — he's a Bama boy — so it’s great to have him,” Clinton-Dix said. “All the pressure is on us. He says we have to be the best group in the building. So we're excited about the challenge.”
Townsend said he leaned partially on his own film and stats to impart in his players the challenges and sacrifices that come with sustaining success in a league known for its fickleness. New ILB coach Mark DeLeone, like Townsend, is fairly new to being an NFL position coach but without the luxury of having played as a pro. Still, he’s worked under great football minds, from Andy Reid to Urban Meyer to Kirk Ferentz, and overseen some outstanding linebackers, including Derrick Johnson, the Chiefs’ all-time tackling leader and longtime defensive leader.
“What I would say is this,” Deleone explained of how the Bears defensive newness can be a plus, “I think everybody, every player, every person, we all learn differently. We all hear things a different way. So if we can get one or two players, and everybody just raises their level a little bit, we can make the defense even better than it was. Just a little bit. And sometimes when you get a different way of hearing something, it might be the same technique but I heard it one way and now I hear it a new way, and maybe that way clicks for me and that changes the whole thing. So we’re just trying to raise the level from that standpoint as best we can.”
Danny Trevathan told us that that approach — and DeLeone’s reference points with those past relationships — resonates with him and his position room.
“Absolutely. We talk about those guys all the time,” he said. “… He’s pretty good at teaching me, pulling me to the side and talking to me, and it’s helping me be a better leader.”
While Townsend and DeLeone continue finding their voices and the methods of communication that work best for them as young NFL position coaches, new senior defensive assistant/OLB coach Ted Monachino has more than 20 years of combined college and NFL coaching experience to draw on. That background, along with his boss and new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s vast experience, helped form the Bears’ plan as they installed a Pagano ‘D’ with no shortage of carryover to that of his successor, Vic Fangio.
“If you're worth your salt as a coach and you're worth your salt as a coordinator and as a staff, you try to keep your guys doing what they do best as often as possible,” Monachino said, after explaining how much of the verbiage the new staff maintained and the calming on-field effect it has on the players. “And when guys see that, ‘they're trying to help me play better?’ When they see that, they buy in. If I said, OK Khalil, you're going to cover eight out of every ten snaps, you're going to be in coverage. Well he's not going to buy into that idea right? But if I say, OK Khalil, you're going to wreck the game. Well, he's going to enjoy that, so he's going to buy in faster.”
Monachino also alluded to the increased offseason attentiveness that came with the staff change. The natural assumption is that some level of drop-off is imminent from a defense that allowed a league-low 17.7 points per game and generated an NFL-high 36 takeaways — the most since the 2015 NFC champion Carolina Panthers created 39 — but one of the Bears’ premier ballhawks, Eddie Jackson, says not so fast.
“You won’t even know that we got a new defensive coordinator [with] how everything aligns with itself,” he said in May. “I feel like a lot of that is on the teammates — if everybody can come in and play with each other and go in there and get better…”