Week 1 is not time to overreact, but after mental and physical breakdowns led to two long TD passes in a 34-14 loss to the Rams and raised red flags, first-year coordinator Sean Desai has work to do.
It would be foolish to judge Bears first-year defensive coordinator Sean Desai on one game. But the defensive performance in a 34-14 loss to the Rams on Sunday night at SoFi Stadium was a major letdown.
It’s not just that the Rams scored four touchdowns and 34 points against Desai’s defense, but how they did it — taking advantage of misplays, miscommunications and mental lapses.
Three big plays by Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford to wide-open receivers accounted for 170 yards — a 67-yard touchdown pass to Van Jefferson on the Rams’ third offensive play of the game; a 56-yard touchdown pass to Cooper Kupp on fourth play of the second half; and 37-yard pass to tight end Tyler Higbee that led to Darrell Henderson’s one-yard touchdown that gave the Rams a 27-14 lead late in the third quarter — right after the Bears had closed to within a score of the lead.
Stafford’s arm strength was a factor — especially on the touchdown to Jefferson. But it’s not like the Bears forced him to make other-worldly throws to beat them. His longest pass play after those three went for 19 yards en route to 321 passing yards and a career-best passer rating of 156.1.
If first impressions matter, it was a little disconcerting and a potential red flag. Desai was expected to infuse a veteran defense with intelligence, confidence and aggressiveness. Instead, the Bears looked like a fledgling defense still getting used to playing with each other. No Bears defender was within 10 yards of Kupp when he caught his touchdown pass 44 yards downfield at the 12-yard line.
“That’s probably what’s most frustrating — and our guys know that,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “When they see it on the tape … Matthew Stafford is hard enough to play against, and when you have somebody that wide open, that’s what you don’t want.
“I have a lot of faith in Sean — and our players — in understanding that you go up against a potent offense like the Rams, you better know what you’re doing on every single play.”
While observers outside of Halas Hall are concerned the poor performance against the Rams might be a sign this defense is in an uncontrollable downward spiral, Nagy is hopeful it was a one-off that will be rectified when the Bears play Joe Burrow and the Bengals on Sunday at Soldier Field.
“Overall I’d say the biggest theme for us would be ‘No panic’ and just understand that this was Sean’s first game calling [plays] and this was our first game of 2021, and we understand that that’s not good enough,” Nagy said. “We want to focus on any of the positives that were out there. That’s why I think we all believe in one another and now we get another chance this weekend.”
The failure of veteran safeties Eddie Jackson and Tashaun Gipson to touch Jefferson after he fell at the 15-yard line — allowing Jefferson to get up and score — also was troubling. Though it appeared to be inexcusable lapse, Nagy called it a “learning experience.” Even if it was just a brain cramp or an awkward play — momentum carried both players away from Jefferson on the ground — it didn’t leave a good first impression for Desai’s defense.
“They both nonchalantly tried to tag him. You gotta do it more aggressively,” Nagy said. “You gotta make sure [he’s down]. If anything you gotta hit him. Don’t put any gray into it.
“I guarantee you that entire defense will learn from that, and our offensive players will learn from that, too — if you’re not touched, stand up and run and turn it into a touchdown. I know Sean is teaching those guys the right thing to do, and I know those guys will definitely learn from it.”