Bears Preview: It All Depends on Luck, Growth
Injuries had their way with Chicago in Marc Trestman's first season as coach. But with renewed health, a rebuilt pass rush and progression on offense, the Bears should have what it takes to challenge for an NFC North title
Want to know what bad luck looks like? The 2013 Chicago Bears. Quarterback Jay Cutler went down with a groin injury in Week 7. At the end of his gimpy return in Week 10, he hurt his ankle and was sidelined another four weeks. Thanks to Marc Trestman’s shrewd system and the stellar play of backup Josh McCown, the Bears still managed to go 3-2 in games that Cutler missed completely.
But the progress made on offense was offset by significant regression on defense, where injuries were even more rampant. No. 3 cornerback Kelvin Hayden went on injured reserve in August with a torn hamstring. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton tore his ACL in September. Veteran linebacker D.J. Williams ruptured a pectoral muscle in October. Pro Bowl backer Lance Briggs, during one of the best seasons of his outstanding career, was shelved for eight weeks with a shoulder injury. And a handful of other key players were hampered by minor injuries that nonetheless kept them out of meaningful games.
The consequence of all this: a typically formidable Bears defense became, well, laughable.
After Week 6, they surrendered 197 rushing yards per game. The Seahawks, Saints, and Bills each allowed fewer passing yards per game during that span. Even worse was the Bears’ anemic pass rush, which got pressure on quarterbacks once every other blue moon and tied Jacksonville with a league-low 31 sacks.
Blaming bad luck is perhaps a flimsy excuse. Chicago’s pass rush vanished in large part because Julius Peppers got old and 2012 first-round pick Shea McClellin still hadn’t developed with any rapidity. The hope is that moving McClellin to strongside linebacker (which many thought he was going to play in the first place) will jumpstart what can still be a very good career.
McClellin figures to still put his hand in the dirt on passing downs, joining a completely revamped group of defensive ends. Peppers is now cashing checks from the Packers. But GM Phil Emery in turn signed Jared Allen, an 11-year pro who is no longer a Viking in large part because he started slowing down. Even though he can still consistently flash explosiveness and tenacity, it was surprising that he wrangled $15.5 million guaranteed over the first two years of what amounts to a three-year deal.
Emery also guaranteed $15 million for free agent Lamarr Houston in a five-year, $35 million deal. Basically, the Bears paid $30 million for defensive ends, hoping to get an amalgam of what they once had in Peppers. Houston will provide high-octane first and second down run-stopping, while Allen can hopefully take early down reps and provide a third down pass-rushing presence. Playing opposite Allen on third downs will be ex-Lion Willie Young, who has terrific speed off the edge. Ideally, Young will also take some of Allen’s first-down snaps so the 32-year-old doesn’t have to play every minute like he did in Minnesota.
Houston likely will slide to defensive tackle in the nickel package, where he’ll operate alongside either veteran Jeremiah Ratliff (looking to show he’s healthy after a very discouraging end to his Cowboys tenure) or one of two rookies, Ego Ferguson (second round) or Will Sutton (third). Both rookies are one-gap penetrators with upside, though both come in with concerns about their readiness and ability to quickly develop. Headlining the defensive tackle group on early downs (and maybe some third downs) is Stephen Paea, a fourth-year pro who, if he can avoid the toe and ankle problems that have needled him the past two years, offers a good combination of power and suddenness.
Speed-rushers such as Young and gap penetrators such as Ferguson and Sutton are important in a straight 4-3 zone-based scheme, which defensive coordinator Mel Tucker figures to employ. Last season, Tucker had to try and overcome his backup personnel by tinkering with more blitz concepts.
That could change. Besides the moves made along the defensive front, personnel moves on the back end also suggest a return to the team’s longtime Cover 2/Cover 3 foundation. Charles Tillman was re-signed for one year. At 33, Tillman remains one of the best off-man corners in the game, knowing how to use his strength and how play to his help (whether it’s a safety or, more often, a linebacker or the sideline).
To eventually replace Tillman, the Bears drafted Kyle Fuller with the No. 14 overall pick. The zone-oriented corner figures to be best equipped to play outside. If he captures the No. 3 job in 2014, don’t be surprised if sure-tackling ball hawk Tim Jennings becomes the nickel slot. There’s also veteran Cover 2 corner Kelvin Hayden to consider.
Slot corner was at the forefront of Tucker’s uncharacteristic blitz packages last season, almost always accompanied by a patented Bears double-A gap linebacker alignment. Difficult as it is to tactically combat this pressure concept, Tucker won’t use it too frequently if he gets better play out of his safeties (in addition to a boosted pass rush). Ex-Steeler and ex-Giant Ryan Mundy was brought in, as was former Packer M.D. Jennings. These moves scream of a team that’s not looking to be great at safety, but knows it can’t continue being awful. Both low-priced acquisitions will compete for starting jobs once held by Major Wright and tackle-whiffing savant Chris Conte (who remains on the roster). Jennings has starting experience but will play second-string here, behind fourth-round rookie Brock Vereen.
Tucker has done a great job building disguised coverage rotations into his base scheme. More important than executing those, however, is executing basics such as run-gap fitting, tackling and angles to the ball in space.
The safeties didn’t do this last year and neither did the linebackers. Rookies Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene were forced into the lineup and showed why they had opened the season as backups. Assuming McClellin can eventually capture the first-string Sam backer job, they both could be backups again this season. Neither has been a good reader-and-reactor.
This, however, is based on the assumption that D.J. Williams can win the Mike backer job. Williams, 31, missed 10 games last season. He’s competing with Bostic, whom the team has also considered moving outside. No matter what, Lance Briggs will stay on the weak side, where he’s made an 11-year career that will one day give Hall of Fame voters a lot to discuss.
With Josh McCown in Tampa Bay and the highly intelligent but physically limited Jordan Palmer competing with Jimmy Clausen (yes, that Jimmy Clausen) for No. 2 quarterbacking duties, it’s imperative that Jay Cutler stays healthy. The Bears are making a big bet that Cutler, who has dealt with notable injuries in each of the past four years, can remain upright as he gets more comfortable in a system that centers around protecting him.
Skill-wise, Cutler is on par with any passer in the league—which is why Emery & Co. guaranteed him $54 million in a new seven-year contract. The Bears may not have made the move if Cutler hadn’t shown better discipline and mechanics under Trestman’s tutelage. The 31-year-old still has a long ways to go in a new scheme that hinges on his timing and rhythm, but there’s reason to believe he’ll keep improving. Same goes for his personality and leadership, which he’s stepped up drastically under his new level-headed, offensive-minded coaching staff.
It helps that Cutler doesn’t get hit nearly as much in the new system. Trestman frequently utilizes the sixth offensive lineman, Eben Britton, in overloaded protection schemes, and places a great emphasis on tight end and running back help blocks—something he and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer teach diligently. This has created a newfound comfort with the personnel; for the first time in seven years, the Bears are returning the same starting five offensive linemen.
A lot of credit last year went to rookies Kyle Long and Jordan Mills on the right side. Long appears to be developing into an upper-echelon guard, though probably not quite this season. Praise for the genetically blessed first-rounder has spilled over onto the fifth-rounder Mills, who actually played much more like a rookie than people realize. Both players, however, have overachieved, in part because Chicago’s blocking scheme is favorable to their skill sets. In pass protection, Bears guards are taught “short sets,” meaning they put their hands on opponents before executing their full footwork—opposite of how linemen are usually taught. The tackles, instead of continuously drop-stepping in pass protection, attack defensive ends on the perimeter. The result is a much roomier pocket for the quarterback.
This unconventional approach is why left tackle Jermon Bushrod, whom Kromer worked closely with in New Orleans, had a career year in his first season with the Bears. Left guard Matt Slauson also had a career year in his first season here.
No matter how crafty a coach might be, his scheme will always be heavily influenced by his personnel. A big reason why Trestman is able to invest in extra pass-blockers is because wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery can both defeat double coverage. With two dominant jump-ball receivers who also run good routes and stretch the field, a quarterback doesn’t necessarily need five different receiving outlets to choose from. In fact, giving Cutler fewer potential targets might be a good idea since the quick-trigger gunslinger isn’t always a great progression read decision-maker.
Cutler’s third option, tight end Martellus Bennett, can also win on jump balls. (The Bears make great use of this in the red zone.) And check-down option, running back Matt Forte, is one of the most feared receiving backs in football. Forte has an excellent feel for working underneath and just enough lateral agility and smooth burst to create his own yards. This applies not just in space as a receiver, but also as a ballcarrier—even on the perimeter, where many of Chicago’s best runs attack.
The Bears can have the most explosive offense in football this season; it’s just a matter of progressing in Trestman’s system and, perhaps more importantly, having some overdue good luck.
Kicker Robbie Gould remains one of the best in the game. Sixth-round rookie Pat O’Donnell is all but a lock for the punting job. Chicago’s return game will look very different now that Devin Hester is not back there scaring opponents into bad kicks. New return specialist Eric Weems made the Pro Bowl as a return man in 2010 and has long been an upper-echelon special teams cover guy.
It’s reasonable to expect the offense to take another step forward. If that’s the case, all the Bears need in order to threaten Green Bay atop the NFC North is a bendable but not breakable defense.