Through the first two weeks of the 2013 campaign, the Chicago Bears defense had two total sacks. In the base 4-3 Cover 2 that defensive coordinator Mel Tucker runs, pressure up front is crucial in allowing the defense to sit in zone coverage. It's not a defense built for man sets on every play and the vast majority of blitzes require man coverage.
When asked about it last week, Tucker seemed open to experimenting with different solutions to his team's pass-rush woes, including exotic blitz packages.
"We'll blitz when we need to and when we want to," Tucker said. "The blitzes compliment the base and vice versa. Whatever we have to do to get to the quarterback and get him down, keep him in the pocket so he can't run around and make plays with his feet, we'll do that."
Despite facing one of the most porous offensive lines in the league – Pittsburgh had allowed seven sacks in two games before Sunday's contest – Tucker chose to bring the heat early and often against the Steelers. He was relentless with pressure until the game was out of hand, blitzing in 40 percent of the total snaps – 42 percent against the pass and 35 percent against the run.
Compared to the vanilla schemes Tucker trotted out in the previous two home games, no one could have expected such second-level pressure. And it was heavy pressure to boot. Against the pass, Tucker sent two blitzers on 14 of 26 snaps (53 percent). Overall, he brought seven or more rushers on 16 of 65 defensive snaps (25 percent) in Week 3. That's called bringing the house to make sure Ben Roethlisberger doesn't have time to carve up a secondary that featured an ailing Charles Tillman.
"Pass rush is something we need to improve on," Tucker said last week. "We need to finish in our rushes. We were getting closer but no cigar. This week is about finishing — four guys working together. And when we pressure, we've got to get there."
On Sunday, the Bears got "pressure" on Roethlisberger on 12 of 19 snaps (63 percent) when blitzing against the pass. Those 12 pressures resulted in three sacks – two by D.J. Williams and one by Lance Briggs – three turnovers and two defensive scores.
"We picked up our blitzes," Marc Trestman said yesterday. "Our guys did a good job of disguising and bringing the blitz and we got some hits on Ben with those blitzes and some sacks."
And Tucker was not stale or predictable with his packages. He brought linebackers on 19 of his 26 blitzes, while safeties blitzed four times and nickelback Isaiah Frey blitzed nine times. It was a series of relentless blitzes that were very well designed and executed, with great results.
"It's just another way to get a pass rush," said Trestman. "Mel sees things in structure and scheme that he thinks he can take advantage of, and the defensive guys do, and we decided to go in that direction this game. We really didn't blitz that much more than we blitzed in the first two games, so there wasn't an overhaul of doing things differently here. It was just two or three more blitzes than we probably normally run in a game over the first three weeks."
The problem is that when you live by the blitz, you also die by the blitz. On both of Pittsburgh's deep touchdowns, the Bears brought multiple players on blitzes that did not get to the quarterback. The secondary becomes very vulnerable in that situation.
Yet a bigger problem is what the Bears are doing when they're not blitzing, which is basically nothing. When rushing just four players on Sunday, Chicago got pressure on 10 of 27 snaps (37 percent). Yet five of those 10 pressures, none of which resulted in sacks, came on the final two drives when the Steelers were behind by multiple scores and the defense could pin their ears back without the threat of the run. Take away those final two drives and the Bears hurried Roethlisberger with four rushers on just five of 28 pass snaps (17 percent).
That is a disturbing number to begin with but when you factor in the loss of Henry Melton for the remainder of the season, it becomes panic inducing. The Bears will be without their best pass rusher the next 13-plus games, and they were struggling mightily even with him in the lineup.
Tucker was able to mask the lack of pass rush up front by blitzing the Steelers into submission. That worked against one of the worst offenses in the league but better teams with better offensive coordinators aren't going to be as easily disrupted by an extra rusher or two. It's a great sign that Tucker can adjust and has a Plan B when things aren't running on all cylinders but if he's forced to blitz 40 percent from here on out, Bears games are going to turn into shootouts.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.