In the NFL, there are two traditional base defenses: 3-4 and 4-3.
Since 1920, the Chicago Bears have run a 4-3 defense exclusively (four down linemen and three linebackers). That will soon change, as new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio run sa 3-4 system.
Transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 is much more difficult and complex than just moving players to different positions on the field. Along the front seven, the physical requirements of each position vary drastically between the two defenses.
Typically, a 4-3 defense relies on penetrating, one-gap defensive linemen and speedy linebackers. Traditional 3-4 defenses use massive, space-eating defensive linemen and bigger, slower linebackers.
Every defensive player on Chicago’s current roster was signed for his potential production in a 4-3 system. With a 3-4 coming to the Windy City for the first time in franchise history, it’s fair to assume wholesale changes will occur in personnel, particularly along the front seven.
Yet with Fangio, traditional rules don’t necessarily apply. As DC of the San Francisco 49ers the last four seasons, Fangio ran a 3-4 with players much smaller than their historical counterparts.
Let’s compare typical 3-4 body types to those deployed by Fangio the past four years.
Defensive End (5-Technique)
As we can see, the 49ers used players with 4-3 size in a 3-4 scheme, where speed and quickness were given priority over girth.
So with Fangio, size is not the main criteria when evaluating the potential of Chicago’s defenders in the forthcoming 3-4. More importantly, it’s their skill set in key areas at each position.
Key Traits: Ability to anchor, arm extension, lower-body power, ability to disengage.
Stephen Paea (6-1, 300): We’ll start with the player who is arguably the hardest to project. Paea is a hybrid player who has immense strength and the ability to rush the passer. He had a career-high 6.0 sacks last year and 31 QB hurries, second most on the team, per Pro Football Focus (PFF).
Yet Paea struggles to anchor at the point of attack and is too often driven backward by double teams, something he’d face on every snap in a 3-4. It’s unlikely he could stack and occupy two gaps at nose tackle. He does have potential at 5-technique but even that is a stretch. Considering his price tag – he’ll be a highly sought-after free agent by many 4-3 teams this offseason – Paea may not be in the team’s future plans.
Ego Ferguson (6-2, 315): Ferguson is one of the few Bears defenders tailor made for a 3-4 defense. He’s extremely powerful at the point of attack, has the lower-body strength to hold his ground against double teams and the arm strength to shed blocks. He could line up at nose tackle or defensive end in a 3-4, giving him added value.
Jeremiah Ratliff (6-4, 303): Ratliff is one of few players on the roster who has experience in a 3-4 – he played nose under Rob Ryan in Dallas. He’s an extremely tough, physically dominant player who could easily anchor the defensive line for Fangio. The biggest issue for Ratliff, who turns 34 in August, is health. He’s played just 22 games the past three years combined, so he’s unlikely to play 16 games next year. Yet if the Bears are willing to take that risk, Ratliff would be a nice fit for one season in Chicago’s 3-4.
Will Sutton (6-1, 303): Sutton is considered a prototypical 3-technique defensive tackle. He’s at his best coming hard off the ball and penetrating gaps. Under Fangio, that’s not necessary, as gap control is much more important than backfield disruption. Sutton had very little impact as a pass rusher his rookie year, with zero sacks and just one QB hit, per PFF. Surprisingly, he was much better against the run. Additionally, he played 15 pounds heavier his senior year at Arizona State, when he earned Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, so performing with additional weight is nothing new to him. On the surface Sutton doesn’t fit Fangio’s 3-4, yet if the new coaching staff is committed to him, there’s an outside chance he can find a role in a two-gap system. It’s a long shot but one that might be worth taking.
Key Traits: Ability to set the edge, anchor against double teams, stack and shed.
Jared Allen (6-6, 270): Allen was a severe disappointment last year – his 5.5 sacks were the fewest of his career – and now he’ll be asked to move to OLB, a position he’s never before played in the NFL. Allen showed very little burst off the ball and could not consistently turn the corner. He still moves well in space and the Bears dropped him into coverage on zone blitzes throughout last season, so he still could have value out wide, but there’s a good Chance Allen will be little more than a fish out of water in a 3-4.
Willie Young (6-4, 251): Young was one of the few bright spots for Chicago’s defense last year and led the team with a career high 10.0 sacks. Yet he tore his Achilles in the season finale, an injury that could take up to 12 months to heal. It would be foolish to count on him for next season. That said, if he’s quick to recover, Young could have a role under Fangio as a part-time edge rusher. He has the best hand usage and arm extension of any Bears defender, and if he packs on 20 pounds, he could even have success as a 5-technique.
Lamarr Houston (6-3, 300): Like Ferguson, Houston is a perfect fit for Fangio’s 3-4. He’s extremely physical against the run and was leading the team in QB pressures, per PFF, before tearing his ACL last year. If he’s healthy next season, Houston can slide right in at 5-technique and be very effective in that role.
David Bass (6-4, 256): Bass is intriguing, as he’s continuously taken advantage of his every opportunity. Despite playing just 144 snaps last year, Bass had 3.0 sacks. By comparison, Allen had 5.0 sacks in 910 snaps. Bass isn’t stout against the run, which is why he’s a great candidate for a shift to OLB. He’s athletic and intelligent, so there’s no reason he can’t be effective in short-zone coverage. And if you give the kid a head of steam when rushing the passer, he could be very effective off the edge.
Cornelius Washington (6-4, 265): Washington is an athletic freak but lacks discipline, both mentally and in his technique. He’s a physical specimen with outstanding speed, so the potential is there for something great. He’s been unable to find any consistency as a 4-3 DE, so it’s possible a move to OLB could be just what the doctor ordered. He could struggle in coverage but he’s worth a long look as a potential pass-rushing force at a new position.
ILB Key Traits: Ability to fill gaps, take on lead blockers, shed blocks and plug holes. Speed isn’t necessary but it definitely helps (Willis ran a 4.51 40-yard dash).
OLB Key Traits: Ability to rush the passer – awareness and quickness in coverage.
Lance Briggs (6-1, 244): Briggs is old and slow, yet his loss of foot speed wouldn’t hurt him as much at ILB in a 3-4, the system in which he played collegiately. He still hits gaps hard and has great field vision. His experience would also be valuable. It’s unlikely the Bears will retain Briggs, who has had one foot out the door the past two seasons, but if they can’t find a better option, he’d be worth one more year in the Windy City.
D.J. Williams (6-1, 242): Williams still plays with fire and physicality when healthy. He’d be a solid fit as an ILB under Fangio, yet his age (32) and inability to stay on the field make him a long shot to return next season.
Jon Bostic (6-1, 245): Bostic improved greatly last year in his ability to fight off blocks. It was night-and-day better than his rookie season. He also has very good speed – his 4.59 40-yard dash was second best amongst linebackers at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine – which allows him to play sideline to sideline. He’s still a work in progress but Bostic has a lot of potential in a 3-4 system. If he can improve his field vision and instincts under new linebackers coach Glenn Pires, Bostic could break out next season.
Christian Jones (6-3, 240): Jones does not fit the traditional mold for a 3-4 ILB. He was a pleasant surprise last season but Jones struggled at the point of attack. He was outstanding in coverage but his skill set against the run doesn’t lend itself to Fangio’s defense as an ILB. Which is why Jones is a great candidate to slide outside. Remember, he played mainly defensive end in a 4-3 his senior season at Florida State, so rushing the passer is nothing new to him – he had 2.0 sacks last season, the most of any Bears linebacker. Combine that with his prowess in underneath coverage and Jones could emerge as one of the club’s starting OLBs in 2015.
Shea McClellin (6-3, 245): Coming out of Boise State in 2012 it was clear to everyone but Phil Emery that McClellin was best fit as an OLB in a 3-4 defense. Now we’ll finally get a chance to see him in that role. His experience in coverage playing linebacker last year should help him as well. If he can reclaim that magic off the edge, he’ll shed the “first-round bust” label. That said, if he continues to show a lack of physicality and an inability to disengage from blocks, he won’t be long for Fangio’s defense. If McClellin doesn’t develop into a big-time playmaker this year, it’ll never happen for him at the NFL level.
Khaseem Greene (6-1, 241): Greene was highly disappointing last season, to the point he was a healthy scratch in six contests. He was slow on the field, lacked aggressiveness and made a lot of mistakes. Greene has an outside chance of finding a role at ILB under Fangio but more than likely, he’ll end up the odd man out.
Darryl Sharpton (5-11, 235): Sharpton is far too small and far too injury prone to be relied on next year. In addition, he has just 1.0 career sack, so there’s little hope for him at OLB.
DeDe Lattimore (6-1, 237): The Bears today signed Lattimore to a two-year contract extension, although that's most likely due to his ability on special teams. Lattimore has very good speed and aggressiveness but he's small and lacks power at the point of attack. He did play OLB for three years at USF, so there's a small chance he could fill a part time, Bruce-Irvin-type role.
FINAL FRONT-SEVEN TALLY
Good Fits: Ferguson, Ratliff, Houston, Bass, Washington, Bostic, Jones, McClellin, Lattimore.
Bad Fits: Paea, Sutton, Allen, Young, Briggs, Williams, Greene.
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.