One of Chicago’s loudest noises is the rumble of the elevated train, or L train. The heavy trains glide along creaky wooden supports, emitting a thunder-like roar as they scatter across the Windy City.
If you’re within 50 yards of an L train as it flies by, you’ll hear nothing else but it’s metallic thrum.
Yet at times during the second half of the 2013 NFL season, the cacophony created by those screaming for the head of Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was louder than the L hurtling through a subway tunnel under the Loop.
That din carried over to the offseason, to the point where head coach Marc Trestman and GM Phil Emery had to answer questions at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine about why Tucker was still employed.
“I talked about Mel throughout the season,” Trestman said in February. “At our place we really try to grow the man because we think growing the man helps our football team. From a philosophical standpoint, from the first time I met Mel, that’s one of his priorities, a locker room of character, guys that respect each other, send the right messages of selflessness.
“Mel feels that way as well. As we transition into the process, his ability to communicate, his understanding of defenses on all three levels, the details, and assimilating a system of football where he knew it but he had to move forward on an intellectual level of knowing the terminology and nuances that came with adapting and assimilating the defense, and being able to teach it and lead men. I had confidence in him from the beginning that he could do that. At the end of the season that did not change.”
After a historically awful defensive year in 2013, Trestman was heavily criticized this offseason for not firing Tucker. That criticism extended into the regular season following a Week 1 loss in which the Buffalo Bills rolled up 193 yards on the ground.
Yet those calling for Tucker’s head have recently fallen silent. It’s no wonder, as a closer look reveals the work that Tucker is doing this year may be his best yet as an NFL coordinator.
Consider this, the Bills piled up most of their yardage on two big runs, a 47-yarder and a 38-yarder in overtime. Other than those big runs, which resulted in six total points against, the Bears essentially shut down one of the toughest rushing attacks in the league.
Since then, Chicago’s defense has not allowed a run of more than 20 yards. In Week 2, the unit held Frank Gore to 63 yards on the ground and in Week 3, against the top rushing attack in the NFL – the Jets came into the contest averaging nearly 180 yards on the ground – the Bears allowed just 114 rushing yards.
The Bears still rank just 23rd overall and 26th against the run, so Tucker isn’t fielding an elite group. Yet we’ve seen serious signs of improvement through the first three weeks of the 2014 campaign.
The defense has eight total sacks, tied for sixth most in the NFL – which is a vast improvement from 2013, when the club ranked 32nd in total sacks – and defensive end Willie Young leads the league with 4.0 sacks.
The Bears also have eight turnovers, which is the most in the NFL, while rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller’s three interceptions are more than every other player in the league.
Additionally, Chicago’s defense has gotten better as games progressed. Last season, Tucker was chastised for a perceived inability to adjust his game plan as games progressed. Through three games this season, the Bears have yet to allow a touchdown in the second half, a testament to Tucker’s in-game management.
Tucker has done all of this despite a laundry list of injuries to impact players. Charles Tillman is done for the season, Shea McClellin has a broken hand, Jeremiah Ratliff has only played a game and a half, both of the starting safeties are on the injury report, as is nickelback Sherrick McManis.
At different points the last two weeks, Tucker has been forced to put a rookie safety at slot corner and insert a rookie safety the team signed just four days earlier off the Vikings practice squad, on the game-clinching drive no less. In both of those games, the defense carried the team to victory.
Credit also goes to Emery, whose roster tinkering this offseason – which included nearly wholesale changes along the defensive line – resulted in the quality depth that has helped the team to a 2-1 record. Much of that depth has come from the rookie class, as Fuller, Brock Vereen, Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson have all played significant roles to this point in the season.
Before this year, Emery was criticized for not having an eye for young defensive talent. It’s unlikely that criticism will continue if the team’s rookie class ascends at its current pace.
In 2013, Tucker dealt with a host of injuries to every position on the field. At one point, Landen Cohen was starting games – that’s how badly the injury bug hit the defensive line. And those who stayed healthy – McClellin, Julius Peppers, Chris Conte, Major Wright, Jon Bostic – severely underperformed.
Tucker took the brunt of the blame and, to a certain extent, that was warranted. Yet no one can create a competitive defense with mediocre talent up front and no depth to support it. Trestman and Emery knew that, which is why they kept Tucker on board, a decision that, in hindsight, looks very wise.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.