The biggest question mark for the Chicago Bears defense going forward concerns the linebacker position. Lance Briggs’ career is likely over, D.J. Williams will be a free agent in a month, Shea McClellin has struggled transitioning to his new position, Christian Jones plays like a rookie, Jon Bostic is making the same mistakes he made last year and Khaseem Greene won’t be a Bear next season.
In order to get a better idea of what’s gone wrong with a once-proud position in Chicago, let’s break down the film from last week’s contest against the Dallas Cowboys.
The Bears line up in base 4-3, with Bostic on the weak side (WILL), Williams in the middle (MIKE) and McClellin on the strong side (SAM). The play will be a handoff to DeMarco Murray up the right A gap.
At the snap, both of the defensive tackles are double-teamed. All three linebackers hold their ground.
As Murray hits the line of scrimmage, notice both Williams and McClellin are still holding their ground, despite each having a clear path to the ball carrier. Because neither linebacker fills their gap, the offensive linemen can hold their blocks on the defensive tackles for a second longer.
Murray runs right into the chest of Williams, who makes the tackle after an 8-yard gain.
Analysis: A fundamental read-and-react technique for linebackers is to support the defensive line by filling run lanes. Linebackers are taught, all the way down to the Pee Wee level, to disrupt plays by attacking the hole.
On this play, and throughout most of this contest, Bears linebackers were extremely passive at the point of attack. The play was run right at Williams, who could have shot the gap and dropped Murray for a loss. At the very least, he could have slowed up and re-directed the runner. Instead, Williams waits for the ball carrier, giving up eight yards in the process.
This is base 4-3 again, with Murray running B gap left. The Cowboys will crash the tight end down on the defensive tackle, with the left guard releasing to the second level at the snap. The player to watch is Williams (blue).
Here we see the hole opening off the left side, as DT Will Sutton is driven three yards inside by the tight end. At this point, Williams has the perfect opportunity to crash the gap and hit the runner at the line of scrimmage. Yet he literally stands there and waits to get blocked.
Here we see Williams getting driven out of the play as Murray picks up seven yards on the ground.
Analysis: Another example of a Bears linebacker playing passively instead of attacking the ball carrier. It was as if Williams was trying to get blocked.
This is 4th and goal at the goal line. The Cowboys are in an unbalanced-right formation. Murray will run off-tackle right. Keys on this play are Jones (yellow) and Bostic (blue).
Jones is double-teamed and is knocked backward immediately. Bostic and safety Chris Conte both have an opportunity to shoot the right B gap, yet they stand their ground.
As Murray gains steam, notice four Bears defenders being blocked by three Cowboys linemen. With Bostic and Jones getting pushed backward, it creates a bottleneck that swallows Conte and Ryan Mundy, leaving poor Tim Jennings – all 5-8, 185 pounds of him – to stop Murray at the goal line. Touchdown Cowboys.
Analysis: Here again we see a linebacker pass up the chance to make a play in the backfield. It’s understandable to a point, as being too aggressive can lead to gaping cutback lanes. Yet eventually, linebackers have to force their will at the line of scrimmage, or else the defense has no chance of stopping the run.
This will be a stretch play left to running back Joseph Randle. The Bears are in a 4-3 Over set, with McClellin up on the line of scrimmage.
As Randle hits the hole, notice that Dallas is using single blocks on all four defensive linemen, as well as the three linebackers. No double teams are used, yet everyone is blocked.
As Randle hits the second level, notice McClellin is still five yards outside of the play, while Williams and Bostic are being turned toward the sideline.
Randle cuts up the field and we see Bostic and Williams sealed off from the runner. The play goes for a 17-yard touchdown.
Analysis: In the NFL, you have to be able to fight off blocks. It’s an imperative element of playing the linebacker position. You have to have instincts, field vision and the ability to shed blockers.
All three of Chicago’s linebackers were finished on this play as soon as the Dallas linemen locked them up. There was no rip move, shuck motion or dip in an attempt to fight their way to the ball carrier. Just three guys on a Thursday evening passively going through the motions, which results in a Cowboys score.
This is a stretch play left to Murray. The key here is Bostic (blue).
The Cowboys do an outstanding job of clearing out the left side with four lead blockers. Yet the Bears have five players at the point of attack and Bostic is untouched. Right here, he has the opportunity to blow up the play by attacking the ball carrier.
Instead of closing inside, Bostic continues on his path toward the sideline. Murray sees this and cuts up the middle of the field.
As Murray hits the second level, notice Bostic has overrun the play by a good five yards. This run goes for a 40-yard gain.
Analysis: Overrunning plays was Bostic’s biggest problem as a rookie last season. He appeared to have cured some of those issues earlier this year but as we can see on this play, he’s regressed. That’s disturbing, as this film is from Week 14.
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.