The Chicago Bears on Sunday were without their top four linebackers during their 27-13 road victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Lance Briggs (ribs), D.J. Williams (neck), Jon Bostic (back) and Shea McClellin (hand) were all ruled out, thrusting Khaseem Greene, Christian Jones and Darryl Sharpton into starting roles.
Greene, last year’s fourth-round draft pick, was making his fifth official NFL start. Jones, an undrafted free agent, made his first NFL start, and Sharpton was signed just a week earlier.
Yet the inexperienced trio played at a very high level and helped thwart the third-ranked Falcons offense, holding them to 287 total yards and 42 yards on the ground.
“We went about our business to just make sure they knew what their role was going to be going into the game,” defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said today. “We made sure we were on the same page from a communication standpoint, got them lined up, got them ready to go.”
“I’ve said it multiple times before, we’ve coached every single player we’ve had since Day 1 that as a player, he’s going to have to go in and help us win the game. That’s what we coach and that’s the way those guys prepare. Everyone on the roster has value for us and we treat it as much day in and day out. When guys have opportunities, we expect guys to step up and fill those roles and give us everything they have and that’s what we did.”
On the field, the young linebacker trio looked much faster than their predecessors, particularly Sharpton, a fifth-year player who led the Houston Texans in tackles (87) last season.
“He was an excellent communicator for us,” said Tucker. “He got us lined up, he played fast and he was physical in the game.”
Yet despite the success of the youngsters, the Bears have no intention of altering the starting lineup.
“We felt good about the guys that were in there before the injuries hit,” Tucker said. “The roles they had were roles that they earned and so when those guys are ready they will be back in there.”
Despite his loyalty to the veterans, it was clear the boost the young linebackers gave the defense against Atlanta. The unit sacked Matt Ryan four times and intercepted him once, while the 13 points against were the fewest in any single contest in Marc Trestman’s tenure.
While that might cause some to question the depth chart, Tucker and the Bears see it as an indication of quality depth at a position of need.
“We felt like we’ve been on the right track since Day 1 in that we believe in what we are doing with our guys and we just needed to focus on getting better day in and day out and week in and week out,” Tucker said. “We’re still not where we want to be and we’ve got some things we have to clean up but we feel good about our group as a whole and what we need to get gone and we have to take the next step.
“There were really no surprises in the game in terms of what we saw from our guys because we practice with a very good tempo and at a high level. We pretty much know when guys go in the game what we expect them to do because we see them do it in practice.”
Briggs (33 years old) missed nine games last year and appears doubtful to return this week, while Williams (32) missed 11 games in 2013. McClellin, who has been out since Week 3, is slated to return this week, yet Bostic didn’t practice today and Williams was limited.
As a result, Jones, Greene and Sharpton haven’t seen the last of their starting days, with two possibly starting again this week. Their development and production could be crucial in helping the Bears to their first playoff berth since 2010.
Yet no matter how well the backups play, the veterans will resume their roles once each is healthy.
“We’re constantly evaluating the play of guys day-in and day-out and we feel good about those guys,” said Tucker. “We got a one-game evaluation on [the young] guys. They stepped in and we feel good about what they did. So when guys are healthy and ready to go, I anticipate [the veterans] getting back in there and filling those roles again. And we know that we have guys that can step in when needed and get the job done, and that’s the expectation for us. So that’s what we plan to do moving forward.”
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.