The unit has been decimated by injuries the past two years, while both the aging veterans and the rookies have failed to play to their potential. The inconsistencies of Chicago’s linebackers has been a major factor in the sub-standard production of the defense.
That said, there are still many promising signs for a positional group undergoing a rough transition.
Lance Briggs has been affected most by the departure of Urlacher. Everyone considers Briggs a freelance player, one who will shoot a gap at a moment’s notice if he sees something he likes. He doesn’t always fly by the rules and often reacts to what’s in front of him, in spite of the play called.
That was a fine strategy with Urlacher in the lineup, as he was able to clean up the plays in which Briggs guessed wrong. Now that players with very little experience surround Briggs, his missed reads have cost the team. Going back to Week 1, Briggs shot two incorrect gaps on plays the Bills turned into huge gains on the ground, resulting in the first of Chicago’s five losses this year.
He’s not doing anything different than he’s always done, only he doesn’t have one of the greatest linebackers to ever play the game fixing his mistakes. This has been very prevalent against the zone-read, which the Bears have dealt with on a near-weekly basis this season. Against the option, discipline is crucial. Yet Briggs is still freelancing and it has hurt the team.
But you can’t be too critical of a guy who has only played 14 of the team’s past 24 games, which is another source of the up-and-down play of this unit. The picture of health for most of his career – he missed just four games in 10 years between 2003-2012 – Briggs has become injury prone the past two years.
His experience and leadership could help a young group of linebackers who often appear confused during games. Yet Briggs can’t stay on the field and a player can only do so much from the sidelines.
The same goes for D.J. Williams, who has played just 20 games the past three years combined. He’s played in seven of eight contests this year and has the fourth most tackles (30) on the team. Yet he hasn’t had many impact plays – Williams doesn’t have a sack, a tackle for loss, a pass defended, a forced fumble or an interception through eight games.
Williams is part of a rotation that began in training camp, where he comes off the field on passing downs. He was originally replaced by Jon Bostic in nickel but more recently by Darryl Sharpton, before the hamstring injury. Still, Williams has played the second most snaps of any linebacker on the team (267, behind only Briggs’ 320) so his lack of impact plays can’t be blamed on the linebacker rotation.
The injury bug has also hit Shea McClellin, who has missed four games this season with a broken hand. In his first NFL season as a linebacker, the lack of field time has hurt him, which has resulted in some ugly, inconsistent play. He struggles in his reads, in his ability to shed blockers and in his coverage awareness.
McClellin has had some success as a blitzer – he leads all Bears linebackers in QB hurries, per Pro Football Focus, and is the only LB on the team with a sack – but overall, the positional switch hasn’t gone well. We’ll see over the second half of the season whether more snaps will result in increased production for McClellin but I’m not holding my breath.
One of the bright spots this year has been Jon Bostic, who has vastly improved against the run. He struggled at the point of attack as a rookie but he’s been very strong filling gaps and corralling ball carriers this year. He doesn’t appear afraid of contact, as he did in 2013, which has allowed him to make a number of plays. Bostic is still a work in progress and is coming off a back injury that has kept him on the shelf for three weeks, but his improvement this year under new linebackers coach Reggie Herring is a promising sign for his future.
The same can’t necessarily be said about Khaseem Greene, who joined Bostic in last year’s draft class. Greene has started two games in place of Briggs yet he appeared lost in coverage. It was surprising to see, as Greene is a former collegiate safety. As a result, he was passed over by undrafted rookie Christian Jones as the starting weak-side linebacker in Week 8 against the Patriots.
Jones leapfrogging Greene isn’t all that surprising, as the team has been high on Jones since rookie minicamp. A third-round talent who fell into Chicago’s lap following the draft, Jones has emerged as a long-term candidate at the linebacker position. He’s big, fast, and versatile, and has shown solid awareness in coverage. He struggled against New England filling gaps, an area in which he must improve, but down the line Jones has the chops to be a starting linebacker for the Bears.
Darryl Sharpton started at middle linebacker during the Week 6 victory over the Falcons. He flew around the field and made a number of big plays. Sharpton is a fifth-year veteran who led the Texans in tackles last season, so it’s no surprise he can play. Yet the reason he was unemployed until the Bears signed him in Week 3 is his penchant for injury. Sure enough, it took just two games of defensive duty before Sharpton hurt his hamstring. He has yet to return to the practice field. If he can stay healthy, Sharpton can be a quality rotational linebacker on passing downs but it’s tough to rely on a guy who has never played a full season in his NFL career.
The Bears aren’t going to develop continuity at linebacker until a core group of healthy players emerge. Here are the snap counts for Chicago’s LBs this year:
Through eight games, seven Bears linebackers have played 100 or more snaps. The team has trotted out five different starting lineups in eight weeks, and that doesn’t include the nickel rotation. It’s pretty tough to develop chemistry when different guys are lining up at different spots each week.
Briggs and Bostic practiced yesterday and the team is optimistic they’ll play this Sunday against the Packers. That is a start.
There’s a lot of work to be done with this unit but the pieces are in place. Long-term, things look even brighter. If Chicago’s linebackers finally get some good fortune and stay off the injury report, all may not be lost for the Bears defense in the second half of the season.
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.