Hoge’s 10 Bears Things: The Fascinating Chess Match Between Nagy And Fangio

Vic Fangio. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — It didn’t matter if it was a hot summer day in Bourbonnais or an early winter day at Halas Hall. For four years, Vic Fangio could be seen on the practice field in his signature gray sweatsuit watching the Bears defense with a close eye. 

Fangio doesn’t say much, and when he does, it is usually short and to the point. He can say just as much, if not more, with a look. And yet, despite his stoic nature, everyone with the Bears swears he has a burning competitive fire inside of him.

“If we threw an interception or if there was a fumble in practice, he’d run down there and jump up in the air and land awkwardly and think he looked cool, but he really didn’t. And then we’d get it on video,” Nagy said.

And there’s one particular incident the Bears’ offense hasn’t forgotten.

“There was one time where he took the ball and they spiked it on us,” Nagy said. “They had a pick-6 and (Fangio) grabbed the ball and he did a ‘ba-boom’ and spiked the ball on us. It was on video.”

It was, but according to Nagy, Fangio went straight into the video department after practice and had it deleted.

“He forgot that I got 51 percent and I made ‘em put it back in, so we got it on the video and we played it later in the year,” Nagy said. 

Asked Wednesday on a conference call if he could tell his side of the story, Fangio said: “I can’t do that. I don’t remember. I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

You could almost see the look on Fangio’s face through the telephone at Halas Hall. Of course he remembered it. And so does wide receiver Allen Robinson.

“Hopefully we get in the end zone and there are some balls spiked by us,” Robinson said.

That’s where we’ll start this week’s “10 Bears Things” as the Bears get ready to go to Denver to face Fangio in his second game as the Broncos’ head coach.


 

1. The Chess Match

Nagy and Fangio have spent the week downplaying the impact their history together will have in Sunday’s game, but I’m fascinated by it. We already saw in Week 1 how much the in-game coaching matchup matters, as Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine had an answer for everything the Bears tried offensively. 

On one hand, Fangio has a deep, intimate knowledge of the Bears’ personnel, Nagy’s tendencies and Trubisky’s tendencies. That’s a frightening thought after what transpired at Soldier Field against the Packers. 

On the other hand, both Nagy and Trubisky knew Fangio’s defense extremely well and will probably be able to notice some of his tendencies too. Trubisky practiced against Fangio’s defense for two years in training camp and the looks he saw this year won’t hurt him either. Chuck Pagano has new wrinkles, but there are plenty of similarities too. Trubisky has hundreds of reps in his pocket that can help him this week in Denver.

“We gotta mix it up a little bit,” Trubisky said. “You gotta do some things that he won’t expect, and just try to keep him off balance. I think if all 11 guys in our offense are doing our jobs, then the game’s going to go the way that we want it. We want to dictate the tempo, how they’re reacting to us and just do things that he won’t expect, necessarily. We gotta do some things that he hasn’t seen before.”

Nagy joked Thursday that every play the Bears will run on Sunday will be new. At least, we think it was a joke.


2. Keep It Simple

The irony is that introducing a whole bunch of new concepts that Fangio hasn’t seen before might do more harm than good. After last week’s offensive debacle, there’s a strong argument to be made that the Bears actually need to simplify things on offense. 

Nagy is earning a reputation for mixing a lot of personnel and varying formations. It keeps defenses on their toes and (usually) prevents plays from being too predictable. However, it also complicates substitutions and makes it more challenging to get in and out of the huddle fast enough for Trubisky to get to the line of scrimmage and get a good, long look at the defense. Against the Packers, the Bears struggled with their personnel packages and still appeared predictable as Pettine’s defense was ready for almost everything the Bears tried to execute. 

So against the Broncos, should Nagy reduce the volume of plays or get even more exotic to keep Fangio guessing?

“It’s really just a matter of knowing where the bones are buried in a lot of these plays, and so I think just the more we do it, the more that (Trubisky’s) trust in the play and my trust with him knowing where to go within the play,” Nagy said. “I think that’s where, if you start getting too crazy with too much volume of plays, then you don’t become an expert at that play. And that’s what I want to make sure I help Mitch do.”

The familiarity with Fangio makes things difficult this week, but I’m on board with simplifying the offense — for now. Nagy’s strategy has been to cast a wide net in training camp and throw a lot at Trubisky to test him. The staff then figures out what works the best and devises their game plans with those plays. It makes a lot of sense. The problem? In 18 games under Nagy, the offense hasn’t found a consistent identity or a consistent running game. The amount of plays Trubisky appears comfortable with seems too small. 

I’m not arguing Nagy change up his own offensive philosophy permanently — “be you” as he says — but it wouldn’t hurt to commit to the run, put Trubisky under center more, and hey, maybe even throw in a play-action or two. 

The reality is that this offense doesn’t need to be exotic or explosive to win a lot of games. Not with this defense. An expanded offense would help later in the year and in the playoffs, but simplifying things now and building it up as the season goes along might be a good idea. Especially considering that the early portion of the schedule is probably the most friendly. 

Hey, maybe Fangio won’t see it coming.


3. The Trey Burton Mystery

I don’t know if it’s time to panic about Trey Burton or not. He’s only missed two of a possible 18 games in a Bears uniform. The issue, however, is that there were eight months between those two missed games and he still doesn’t seem to have confidence in what he’s experiencing with his groin injury.

“It’s been just a really humbling process,” Burton said Thursday. “Waking up every day I just don’t know how I’m going to feel. Obviously I would like to feel really good. And mentally, I mean, I can’t sit on the bench any longer. My body just hasn’t caught up to that and so I’ve just had to humble myself.”

It has to be frustrating for both Burton and the Bears that his progress hasn’t been linear. He claimed he “felt really good, not much pain, but it wasn’t really my choice” when he sat against the Packers. Under Nagy — and trainer Andre Tucker, who is also in his second season in Chicago — the Bears have been cautious with game-time decisions, often opting to give a player an extra week. And after the game last week, Nagy expressed optimism that Burton would be ready for the Broncos.

But a full week later, the situation still seems murky. Especially when Burton says things like, “Every day is a different day and some days I feel really good and some days I don’t feel good at all.”

Like it or not, Burton is a key piece in Nagy’s offense and the Bears missed him against the Eagles last January and against the Packers last week. He creates mismatch problems and the Bears don’t have a perfect replacement for him. Adam Shaheen was drafted before Nagy got to Chicago and isn’t an ideal “U” tight end. He’s more effective in tight situations and the red zone. Ben Braunecker is Burton’s backup, but not as dynamic. And the fact the Bears claimed J.P. Holtz from Washington is both an indication that they don’t feel completely comfortable with their tight end situation and they don’t feel like Jesper Horsted is ready to come off the practice squad to help.

Perhaps Sunday will be one of the days Burton is feeling “really good” and he plays. But how can the Bears trust how he’ll feel on all the other Sundays this season? This is turning into one of the more significant storylines of the season.


4. Watch The Tape

Before we switch over to this week’s opponent, here are some of my quick takeaways from examining the coaches’ tape from Week 1:

Based on my own grades, Khalil Mack came out with his second highest grade in a Bears uniform, tying three other games from last year, including Week 1 at Green Bay in 2018. His highest grade to date was Week 15 against the Packers last year … Leonard Floyd was crafty, mixing up his moves and showing patience against David Bakhtiari …

NFL Game Pass.

Floyd posted the highest grade I have for him in his four-year career … Mitchell Trubisky’s lows were very low, but I still ended up marking him for nine “plus” plays, which surprised me (and only one of them was on a run) … Tarik Cohen had eight catches, but only averaged 6.1 yards/reception and actually ended up with a negative grade once his drop and fumbled pitch were factored in. He continues to put offensive linemen in precarious positions when he bounces runs toward the sideline. That led to a holding call on Kyle Long … James Daniels and Bobby Massie were the only two offensive linemen with positive grades … Taylor Gabriel had a couple of opportunities to make plays for his quarterback and couldn’t … Allen Robinson’s releases were outstanding and Trubisky can’t let his end zone interception prevent him from throwing to Robinson in 1-on-1 situations — he just needs to be right about the coverage … Ha Ha Clinton-Dix posted the highest grade in a talented secondary, which is an encouraging start.


5. The Opponent: Denver Broncos

Last year marked the first time since 1972 that the Denver Broncos suffered back-to-back losing seasons, which is a remarkable accomplishment. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance this will be their third in a row. Like many others, I was happy to see Vic Fangio get his first head coaching opportunity, but I have concerns about the situation he is walking into. It’s unclear what Drew Lock will become, but right now Joe Flacco is a statue behind a suspect offensive line. The Broncos gave right tackle Ja’Wuan James $32 million guaranteed and he’s already hurt. The Bears have a huge advantage there, especially if their front-seven duplicates their performance from Week 1. 

Fangio had to be attracted to a job that included the inheritance of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, but Denver’s defense has some issues. They didn’t stop the run well last year and while Fangio will fix that over time, this unit looks more like what he had in Chicago in 2015 and 2016 rather than what he had in 2017 and 2018. The Broncos’ secondary has holes (especially if Bryce Callahan can’t play) and Josey Jewell and Todd Davis (dealing with a calf injury) are a far cry from Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan at inside linebacker.


6. The Pick

Bears 17, Broncos 13

Fangio’s deep knowledge of the Bears will help on offense too, as he knows the defensive personnel so well. Still, the Bears’ advantages in that matchup are so overwhelming that it’s hard to imagine the Broncos scoring more than one touchdown. The biggest question in this game is whether or not the Bears’ offensive line can play better and get the running game going. The Raiders have a good offensive line and were able to contain Miller and Chubb. Matt Nagy would be wise to factor in how quickly Derek Carr got rid of the ball in that game. If the Bears are able to simplify their offense, run the ball and eliminate mistakes, they’ll be able to grind this one out on the road.


7. Quote Of The Week

“With him in Oakland and me in the NFC, I didn’t really see (Khalil Mack) play a lot. Then when we got him and it was just after a few days, it was like, holy shit. I guess you’ll have to bleep that a little bit.” — Vic Fangio telling Denver reporters about the acquisition of Khalil Mack last year.


8. Tweet Of The Week

 

This happened once when I was producing for Laurence Holmes at 670 The Score. We tried everything to wake the guy up, including blasting an air horn sound and the Vikings’ Gjallarhorn. Nothing worked.


9. Emptying The Notebook

Nagy said he thinks Eddie Goldman “is going to be OK” after suffering an oblique injury in practice Wednesday, but it was discouraging to see him not practice at all on Thursday. Goldman would be greatly missed if he can’t play Sunday … Akiem Hicks’ usage will be interesting to watch. At one point against the Packers, he sat out multiple plays in a row, but then came in on third down and got a sack. Hicks hasn’t missed any practice time, but he’s been on a rehab schedule for something. If Goldman is out Sunday, you’d think Hicks would play more than 77 percent of the snaps like he did against Green Bay … We’re learning more about Chuck Pagano as a coordinator and Thursday he mentioned his focus on eliminating explosive plays and penalties. Both of the Packers’ scoring drives featured explosive plays and Bearspenalties, while Pagano pointed out that his defense had 10 drives without either an explosive play or penalty and the Packers didn’t score on any of those possessions … Both Nagy and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor indicated that kicker Eddy Pineiro’s range should be longer in the thin air of Denver … It might be hard to get a return in the thin air, but if Cordarrelle Patterson can get his hands on the ball, it could be a big factor in Sunday’s game. The Broncos’ coverage units struggled against the Raiders.


10. Final Thoughts

 — It was a little surprising that only two assistant coaches — Ed Donatell and Brandon Staley — followed Fangio to Denver. While all the focus has been on Fangio this week, Donatell is now Fangio’s defensive coordinator and he deserves a lot of credit for developing Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan and Eddie Jackson. Staley is a fast riser who was popular with Khalil Mack, Leonard Floyd and the Bears’ outside linebackers. He has the same position in Denver. What’s interesting is that there are also three former Bears assistants from the John Fox era who ended up in Denver in 2018 and were kept on staff by Fangio when he got there. Those assistants include Zach Azzanni (wide receivers), Reggie Herring (linebackers) and Curtis Modkins (running backs).

— I think we’ll learn a lot about the Vikings and Packers this Sunday at Lambeau Field. Minnesota looked great in a convincing Week 1 win over the Falcons, while the Packers’ offense left a lot to be desired against the Bears. But what happens if the Packers’ defense is for real and they successfully stop Dalvin Cook at the Vikings’ running game? If the Vikings stay healthy on defense, I think they are biggest competitor to the Bears in the NFC North, but the Packers have a chance to make a statement Sunday by improving to 2-0 within the division.

— I am already extremely annoyed that pass interference is reviewable. I appreciate that they’ve set an extremely high bar for calls to be reversed, but there are just too many flaws under the current rules. We saw one of those flaws Thursday night in the Panthers-Buccaneers game when Ron Rivera challenged a non-call but wasn’t awarded a penalty because the replay showed illegal contact and not pass interference. Illegal contact is not reviewable. So basically, the replay showed an obvious penalty, just not the one that is reviewable, so it wasn’t a penalty. Imagine that happening in the playoffs and not just on a random Thursday night in September. And wait until a coach challenges a non-call and the officials determine that offensive pass interference actually occurred, administering a penalty to the team that challenged the play. Oh, the irony if that happens to Sean Payton.

Adam Hoge covers the Chicago Bears for WGN Radio and WGNRadio.com. He also hosts “The Hoge & Jahns Podcast.” Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.

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