There is a long-standing NFL belief that winning teams are built from the inside out. That those clubs who put a premium on the offensive and defensive lines are in the best position to win consistently.
The proof is in the pudding. Throughout the league’s different iterations – including the pass-happy, arena-league copycat of today – teams that win the battle in the trenches often with the battle on the scoreboard.
The Bears this offseason made numerous personnel moves to bolster the front lines. On offense, the club added free agents Will Montgomery and Vladimir Ducasse, then selected two linemen in the draft: third-round center Hroniss Grasu and sixth-round tackle Tayo Fabuluje.
For defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, adding talent up front was crucial for the success of his defense this year.
“The three down linemen to me are the heart and soul of the defense,” Fangio said. “If they're getting pushed around, it doesn't matter what [defense] you're in, we're in trouble.”
Bears fans are all too aware of how pushover down linemen can cripple a defense. The Bears finished 17th against the run last season, following a 2013 campaign in which the club ranked dead last in stopping the run.
If the name Landon Cohen means anything to you, then the turnstile defensive lines under former coordinator Mel Tucker hit you especially hard.
So it’s no wonder Pace added a number of new pieces up front, which includes McDonald, who played for Fangio in San Francisco and can help ease the transition to a 3-4 system.
“I know the defense. I know what Vic is trying to get accomplished and it’s big for me to be here,” McDonald said. “I’m a hard worker. I’m a smart player, been around the league for a while, know what’s going on. I know formations, I know offensive concepts and what they’re trying to get accomplished, and I feel I can bring a lot to this team.”
Most of Chicago’s front seven are playing in a 3-4 defense for the first time in their careers, so McDonald’s experience under Fangio will pay immediate dividends. Yet beyond his knowledge, the 30-year-old can still play.
McDonald was a starting 5-technique for Fangio from 2011-2014. During that span, he totaled 14.5 sacks, which is very good from a two-gap defensive end. He’s also very consistent against the run, racking up 39, 37, 38 and 39 tackles each of the past four seasons, while also forcing four fumbles. At 29 years old last season, he ranked 12th highest amongst 3-4 defensive ends in stopping the run, per Pro Football Focus.
With Jenkins, the Bears get a meaty run stopper with size (6-4, 315). He has just 2.0 sacks during his three-year career but he has experience in Washington’s 3-4 system and he can eat space.
Rounding out the veteran trio is Jeremiah Ratliff, who was easily Chicago’s best defensive lineman last season. In 11 starts Ratliff tallied 6.5 sacks, second most on the team, and was a force against the run. He’s played just 22 games the past three years combined, so it’s unlikely the 33-year-old will suit up for 16 games next season, but when healthy Ratliff can still dominate.
“Jay Ratliff is still a good player in this league, always has been,” said Fangio. “I don’t see him slowing down. He can be an end or nose. He should be able to find a spot for us and be an integral player for us.”
While the three veterans are likely to see the bulk of the starter snaps, it’s the two youngsters, Eddie Goldman and Ego Ferguson, who could have the biggest impact.
Goldman is powerful and massive (6-4, 336) and is stout at the point of attack. With good pad level and burst off the ball, he’s nearly impossible to move, which is crucial, as his main role will be to occupy blockers and free up the linebackers.
“He's big and strong, which is important,” said Fangio. “We don't feel like he'll get knocked back into our inside linebackers, which is really important. That's Job 1 for any of the three guys up front. We feel like he's strong and is able to get off blocks and make some plays in there, and hopefully we can get some pass rush out of him, too.”
Ego Ferguson dropped weight this offseason and looked much quicker during voluntary minicamp. Like Ratliff, expect him to rotate at nose tackle and defensive end, and if his new svelte frame allows him greater ease of movement and range, Ferguson may hit his ceiling as early as this year. Watch out for him as the club’s breakout player in 2015.
With McDonald, Ratliff, Jenkins, Ferguson and Goldman, the Bears have a formidable five-some. Yet the fun doesn’t stop there, as both Lamarr Houston and Pernell McPhee will get plenty of playing time at defensive end, particularly on passing downs.
Before tearing his ACL in Week 8 last year, Houston led the team in QB hurries and is one of the best run stoppers on the team. While McPhee’s versatility and quickness, in combination with his size (6-3, 280) makes him a nightmare for opposing offensive linemen on third down.
In essence, Chicago’s defensive line has gone from a team weakness to a team strength, which bodes very well for a defense that has allowed the most yards and points in the NFL the past two years combined.
If the defensive line solidifies, the rest of the defense should follow.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.