Historically, the Chicago Bears have been a defense-first franchise. So when Marc Trestman, an offensive-minded coach, was hired to run the team, it was natural for folks to wonder if the club's offensive improvement would come at the expense of an aging defense.
Those fears were exacerbated when Trestman hired Mel Tucker as the club's defensive coordinator (DC). Tucker, who has been DC in Jacksonville the past four years, coached the 30th ranked defense in the league in 2012. In fact, in his five seasons as a defensive coordinator in the NFL, his units have finished better than 23rd overall just once.
Additionally concerning is the lack of pressure applied by Tucker-run defenses. Here are the sack rankings of his teams during his five years as a DC:
2008 Browns: 30th 2009 Jaguars: 32nd 2010 Jaguars: 30th 2011 Jaguars: 25th 2012 Jaguars: 32nd
It's common knowledge that in today's NFL, if you can't put pressure on a quarterback, your secondary is going to get picked apart, even by mediocre passers. Bears fans have every right to question why Trestman hired a defensive coordinator who has never had success pressuring opposing signal callers.
Yet we have to look a bit deeper to get a fuller understanding of Tucker's potential as Chicago's DC.
First off, he runs a system that is very similar to the 4-3, Cover 2 scheme that was in place under former head coach Lovie Smith. With Tucker, there will be no awkward transitional phase. The defense can pick up where it left off without the need for significant changeover in personnel or scheme.
Second, during his first two years in Jacksonville, Tucker was just a figurehead coordinator, as head coach Jack Del Rio was in charge of the defense and called the plays on the field. Tucker's role under Del Rio was similar to that of Ron Rivera, Bob Babich and Rod Marinelli under Smith. So to blame Tucker for Jacksonville's failures in 2009 and 2010 would be shortsighted.
Yet that changed in 2011, with Del Rio handing over the play-calling duties to Tucker. That season, Tucker's first in full charge of the defense, the Jaguars improved from 28th overall the year before all the way to 6th overall. That cannot be overlooked.
And that came with a defensive roster that was decimated by injuries. In 2011, the Jaguars placed 27 players on injured reserve, including eight defensive backs and both starting defensive ends, one of whom was two-time Pro Bowler Aaron Kampman. Yet Tucker, who even filled in as the interim head coach after Del Rio was fired, still guided the defense to a 6th overall ranking.
Unfortunately, that ranking plummeted to 30th last year, yet one significant injury played into that drop off. The Jaguars played all but one game in 2012 without middle linebacker Daryl Smith, the heart and soul of the defense. The previous seven seasons, Smith had led the team with more than 100 tackles, a franchise record.
Bears fans know precisely how much the loss of a franchise linebacker can impact a defense. When Chicago lost Brian Urlacher in the first game of the 2009 campaign, the run defense dropped from fifth overall in 2008 all the way to 23rd. It was the same with Jacksonville last year.
Finally, let's face it, neither the Jags nor the Browns ever handed Tucker the talent he inherits coming to Chicago. Since 2008, the Bears have sent 13 defensive players to the Pro Bowl. During that same five-year span, Tucker hasn't coached a single Pro Bowler. He'll now get his hands on a defense that sent four players to Hawaii last season – Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman, Henry Melton and Tim Jennings – as well as seven-time Pro Bowler Lance Briggs.
All this isn't to make excuses for the numbers posted by Tucker's defenses. They are not impressive and are not indicative of an elite defensive mind. Yet numbers don't always tell the whole story. When you consider all the factors that have played a part in his defensive failures in the past, it should give you more hope that he can keep Chicago's defense at status quo.
First and foremost, Tucker must improve his ability to create schemes than can hurry opposing quarterbacks. If he can make that adjustment, there are plenty of reasons to believe the Bears' defense can continue playing at a high level.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.