The Chicago Bears defense this season has made dramatic improvement against the run. The unit that finished 32nd in the league in 2013 – the first time in franchise history a Chicago defense finished dead last against the run – now ranks 10th in the NFL in stopping opposing rushing attacks.
The improvement is due to numerous factors, including personnel, coaching and relative good health along the defensive line. Yet the fundamental shift for the Bears defensive tackles from a one-gap, penetrating approach to a two-gap technique has been arguably the biggest factor in the overall improvement against the run.
Let’s go to the film room and analyze All-22 coach’s tape to find out how Chicago’s two-gapping defensive tackles have built the foundation for a Top 10 run defense.
LIKE A GLOVE
At the snap, Paea’s first move is to engage the offensive lineman and create separation by extending his arms. He does this with his eyes in the backfield.
As RB Steven Jackson receives the handoff, notice Paea still has made no effort to move up field, instead squatting and waiting for the ball carrier to come to him. Notice again, his eyes are looking around the blocker and into the backfield.
Analysis: This is the essence of the two-gap technique. No longer do Bears defensive linemen penetrate upfield on passing downs, which was a staple of the Lovie 2. Under defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni, interior defenders instead hold their ground at the point of attack, occupying blockers and creating a wall at the line of scrimmage.
Paea is again circled in blue. The play will be a cross-sweep to the strong side, away from Paea.
At the snap, the center and guard pull away from Paea, leaving him unblocked for the first two seconds of the play. In year’s past, Paea would have exploded into the backfield, which likely would have left him trailing the ball carrier.
Yet here, Paea does nothing but hold his ground and shuffles down the line of scrimmage in the direction of the play.
As the running back prepares to turn the corner, Paea is still in front of him, as one-part of a four-man wall prepared to bring down the ball carrier for a minimal gain.
Analysis: Even when no one decides to block him, Paea still does not rush into the backfield, which just shows the extent to which this technique has been drilled into him by Pasqualoni. Had Paea shot the gap, the pulling guard likely would have chipped him, which would have given the running back room to get outside, leaving Paea as the lost man in the backfield. By moving down the line, he again makes sure to occupy blockers and fortifies the wall of defenders at the line of scrimmage.
Paea is in blue lined up in the right A gap. The play will be run right at him.
At the snap, Paea engages and follows the blocker. Notice his eyes are again in the backfield.
As Jackson approaches the point of attack, Paea sinks his hips and leverages inside.
As the ball carrier hits the hole, Paea sheds the block and is the first to hit Jackson.
Analysis: This is pure stack-and-shed. Paea holds his ground at the snap, helping form the wall, before shedding his blocker and making the tackle.
The Bears guess right and Sharpton blitzes through the hole at which the Falcons are running. This will force the running back to cut inside. Notice both Paea and Ratliff are holding their ground and not attempting to rush into the backfield. Ratliff (white) has his blocker at a full arm’s reach.
Sharpton’s penetration forced the play back inside. Ratliff sees it and crosses the face of his blocker, before dismissing him. Notice Paea has also extended his arms and, with his eyes in the backfield, he sees the runner change directions.
Paea and Ratliff shed their blocks and are two of six players who gang tackle the ball carrier after a 2-yard gain.
Analysis: The run blitz here was a perfect call and flushed the running back inside. Because Ratliff and Paea did little more than set their feet, they were waiting to make the tackle, instead of rushing upfield and taking themselves out of the play.
THE MARK OF JAY
Ratliff is circled in white. The play will be run right at him.
Ratliff is double teamed at the snap. Notice his form in taking on two blockers: hips sunk, feet more than shoulder-width apart, arms extended.
Eventually, the outside blocker clears to the linebacker. Ratliff hasn’t moved, so at that point, he just leans inside and discards the center.
Ratliff makes the tackle after just a couple of yards.
Analysis: Paea isn’t the only player on the team who can stack and shed, as Ratliff is able to conquer a double team on this snap.
Second-round defensive tackle Ego Ferguson is circled in yellow. The play will be run right at him.
At the snap, Ferguson is double teamed, yet he doesn’t budge an inch.
As the outside blocker clears for the linebacker, Ferguson extends his arms and swings his head to the side in order to see into the backfield.
Ferguson sees the ball carrier headed right for him and he uses an explosive burst to drive the offensive lineman laterally. Ferguson then buries the running back after a 1-yard gain.
Analysis: While Paea and Ratliff are both strong, Ferguson may be the most explosive of the bunch. On this play, he occupies two blockers while maintaining his position. He then waits out the double team before using his brute strength to toss the blocker aside. Plays like these demonstrate Ferguson’s immense talent and potential.
WHEN TWO-GAPPING GOES WRONG
On this snap, the Panthers will run the ball up the middle. Paea is circled in blue and LB Lance Briggs is circled in yellow.
Paea again squats at the point of attack. At the same time, Briggs misreads the play and charges the off-tackle hole. This gives the ball carrier a nice lane in which to cut back.
Briggs (yellow) takes himself out of the play, which leaves a truck-wide lane for the running back. Paea is in the process of crossing the face of his blocker and shedding the block.
Both defensive tackles, Paea and Will Sutton, chase the ball carrier down after a 9-yard gain.
Analysis: Two-gap principals are prominent in 3-4 schemes, where there are four linebackers used to make plays on the ball. When you employ two-gap technique into a 4-3 system, you have one less linebacker to support the defensive line.
The onus of any two-gap system is for the big bodies up front to eat up space and allow the linebackers room to make plays. Yet if the linebacker fails to fit the proper gap, huge holes will open up, as we saw on this play.
Ironically, the two-gap technique of the defensive tackles saved this play from becoming a back breaker. When interior defenders charge up the field, they are immediately obsolete if the runner gets past them. By asking the Bears defensive tackles to hold their spots, they are able to disengage and make the tackle nine yards down the field.
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.