Perhaps there's some debate whether it was the Bears defense last December that broke the once-electrifying Los Angeles Rams offense.
After all, the Detroit Lions began laying the blueprint a week prior, when they relied on “quarters” coverage to limit the Rams’ trademark big-play penchant, forcing them to drive the length of the field in an uncharacteristically impotent outing offensively.
And Bill Belichick clearly borrowed from the Bears and Lions weeks later to spin that Super Bowl gem at Sean McVay and Jared Goff.
What’s fairly cut and dried is that McVay and Goff have yet to fully rediscover their mojo. The Rams’ loss in Pittsburgh last week, 17-12, dropping them to 5-4, marked only the third game under McVay in which they were held out of the end zone. The other two, of course, were against the Bears and Patriots. Goff currently has a lower passer rating than Mitch Trubisky, which we'll trust requires no further comment.
Remember, this is an offense that averaged 32.9 points per game last season — tops in the NFC — after pacing the NFL at 29.9 in McVay’s rookie 2017 campaign and the NFL's highest-paid quarterback with a Comeback Player of the Year award, Pro Bowl invite and Super Bowl berth on his resume. The Rams are currently averaging 25.1 points per game, nothing to disparage — especially coming from Bears fans — but not exactly epitomizing “the McVay Effect” anymore either.
What’s inarguable is that the architect of Chicago’s masterful defensive game plan that chilly winter night to limit the Rams to 3.5 yards per play and coax four Goff interceptions, Vic Fangio, is now the head coach of the Denver Broncos. Also not open for debate, two of the Bears’ best defenders that night, Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan, won’t play with injuries when Chicago and L.A. renew acquaintances in prime time Sunday.
Which brings us to Fangio’s replacement, Chuck Pagano, and his two Bears defenders who arguably loom the largest if the same unit that, we’ll say, helped break the Rams doesn’t also allow them to find fixes, Roquan Smith and Khalil Mack.
First, in his own words, here’s McVay on that dominant defensive performance authored by Fangio’s Bears.
“Everybody has made a big deal of they’ve played the 6-1 type structures,” he said. “Then, obviously, that was a big part of what New England did in the Super Bowl. They were a great defense, period. They still are a great defense, but they did do some different things schematically that – I don’t run away from the fact that I didn’t handle that night well at all. Those are things that didn’t go our way, but we have seen some similar things. Those things fit within the framework of the Bears system and specifically under Fangio.”
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The question, then, becomes how much Pagano can borrow from his predecessor, from not falling for McVay’s window dressing to getting home with four rushers out of their base alignment to utilizing “quarters” and especially “Cover-3 buzz” principles.
“Yeah, I think that's still in Chuck's DNA to kind of dictate the game and still be aggressive and play coverage when he's supposed to,” said Prince Amukamara, who notched six tackles, an interception and tied a career high with three breakups, in the game last year.
Ingrained within every defensive coach’s DNA is the charge of stopping the fun, first and foremost. While the Todd Gurley-led Rams’ run game has been a shadow of its 2017-18 self, Matt Nagy said that’s where repeating last year’s success begins after Gurley had only 28 yards on 11 carries. Eliminating the run game is what earned Mack and Co. the right to rush the way they did last year, when Goff was sacked thrice and knocked down seven times, including by Eddie Goldman in his own end zone for a safety.
“You stop the run and then you penetrate the line of scrimmage and be able to affect the quarterback, his timing, make him move in the pocket and do different things there,” Nagy said.
Indeed, Goldman will also be hugely important Sunday night, but here's what makes Mack and Smith — obviously vital every week — even more so Sunday: They're far and away the Bears’ best pressure provider and screen-game elixir, respectively, with Hicks remaining sidelined and Trevathan fully expected to join him there. And with the Rams expected to be without Brandin Cooks and already confirming the absences of starting C Brian Allen and RT Rob Havenstein, well, slump or not, Mack won’t have a better opportunity to wreak havoc, while Smith’s presence in the quick game takes on even more meaning.
Meantime, Pagano must not only have a willingness to copycat Fangio — something he hasn't shied away from to date in overseeing the NFL's No. 4 stop-unit in points allowed — but also the ability to adapt in a hurry. Because McVay should have some new tricks up his sleeve, too, after admitting, "I feel sick about it," regarding his own play-calling performance against Fangio.
"I’ve gone against him and had my tail kicked by him. In 2017, we opened the season out there, and he’s a great coach," Pagano recalled of the first game of his final season with the Colts and McVay's first game, period, with the Rams, a 46-9 demolition."
Pagano's chance to return the favor is almost here.