The Chicago Bears are transitioning to a 3-4 defense this season. With that comes a shift in personnel along the defensive line from four down linemen to three down linemen: a nose tackle and two 5-technique defensive ends.
Among the group that will comprise the club’s defensive lineman at Bears training camp this year, very few have previous experience in a 3-4. As such, the three weeks of practice in Bourbonnais, along with four preseason games, will go a long way toward deciding the defensive line rotation once the games matter.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has a number of options from which to choose, including a good mix of versatile rookies and veterans. When it’s all said and done, the performance of Chicago’s front three will be integral to the success of the defense this season.
“The three down linemen to me are the heart and soul of the defense,” Fangio said this off-season. “If they're getting pushed around, we're in trouble.”
Configuring the base 3-4 is only the beginning, as most NFL defenses now use sub packages roughly 60 percent of the time. In Fangio’s nickel defense, the front line morphs into a 4-3, with two 3-technique defensive tackles and two defensive ends, or converted outside linebackers.
“In the NFL today you play more nickel than you actually play base,” said Fangio. “For some teams it’s 65-75 percent of the time.”
Within that framework, the Bears must find both a base rotation and a nickel rotation, which means there’s a lot of work ahead for this group.
Let’s break down each of the defensive linemen the Bears will bring to training camp later this month.
Ratliff is entering his 11th season in the NFL and his third with the Bears. Based on what I saw during OTAs and minicamp, it’s clear he’s the veteran leader of this unit.
At 33 years old, Ratliff is no longer the four-time Pro Bowler he was in Dallas but he showed last season there’s plenty of gas left in his tank. In just 11 games played, he racked up 6.5 sacks, second most on the team, and was extremely effective against the run. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), he had 19 QB pressures, which was fourth most on the roster and just three less than Willie Young, a pass-rushing defensive end who played 200 more snaps.
“Ratliff is still a good player in this league, always has been,” Fangio said. “I don’t see him slowing down. He should be able to find a spot for us and be an integral player for us.”
Ratliff’s biggest issue is injury. He hasn’t played a full season since 2011 and has averaged just eight games played in two years with the Bears. He’s not getting any younger, so don’t hold your breath for 16 productive games from the veteran in 2015.
That said, Ratliff should have a substantial impact when on the field, as he’s one of the few down linemen on the team with previous 3-4 experience. During off-season workouts he rotated at both nose tackle and 5-technique with the first team and also stayed on the field in sub packages.
For as long as his body holds up, Ratliff will anchor Chicago’s defensive line this season.
The Bears signed Jenkins this off-season due in large part to his experience playing four years in Washington’s 3-4 system. This off-season he worked exclusively with the first team at defensive end and stayed on the field in nickel sets.
Jenkins is a powerful two-gap defender with ideal size (6-4, 315) for the position. That said, the former second-round pick has failed to live up to his potential during his four years in the league. He missed all of his rookie season with a torn ACL and was suspended four games in 2013 for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Additionally, Jenkins has graded negatively against the run in each of his three NFL seasons, per PFF. And as a pass rusher, he’s almost non-existent, having accumulated just 2.0 sacks in 34 games played.
Jenkins brings experience and size, which has value, but temper your expectations for the 27-year-old, as his skill set is limited.
Ferguson is a very intriguing player for the Bears this year. He lost about 10 pounds this off-season and showed improved quickness during minicamps and OTAs.
Playing at both nose tackle and 5-technique with the first team, Ferguson has serious breakout potential in his second NFL season.
As a rookie in 2014 he tallied 23 total tackles, 2.0 sacks and three batted passes in limited reps. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers but they are impressive considering how raw Ferguson was in last year’s rookie minicamp. Since then, he’s developed into an entirely different player, one who no longer has the deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes.
The Bears used a second-round pick on Ferguson last year due to his potential in a 4-3 system but, in reality, he’s better suited for a 3-4. A strong camp and preseason will solidify his role in the starting lineup and I’m very curious to see what he’ll do with increased snaps in the regular season.
The club’s 2015 second-round pick, Goldman is an imposing figure. At 6-4, 336, it’s hard to see how any opposing offensive lineman is going to move him off his spot.
As such, Goldman should make an immediate impact for Chicago’s run defense, as his size alone will eat up blockers at the point of attack. Yet he’s more than just a space-eater, as he’s shown a lot of power and burst off the ball.
Goldman played in a hybrid 3-4 during college, so he’s familiar with his role under Fangio. During minicamps and OTAs, he worked mainly with the second team at nose tackle but he did get occasional reps with the first team. In addition, he was the centerpiece along the defensive line in goal-line and short-yardage situations.
“He's big and strong, which is important,” Fangio said. “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.”
Like Ferguson before him, Goldman is a project, one that may take a year or two to fully develop. For 2015, his role will be one of a run stuffer in base and goal-line packages, unless he begins mauling people once the pads come on. If his size and power translates to the preseason, don’t be surprised if Goldman’s reps increase as the regular season progresses.
Sutton was drafted in the third round last year out of Arizona State as a pure 3-technique defensive tackle. He struggled in that role in the former 4-3 system, failing to pick up a single sack as a rookie, and now is thrust into a defense for which he’s ill-suited.
That said, I believe Sutton can find a role in Fangio’s 3-4.
Sutton appeared a bit thicker this off-season and closer to his 310 playing weight his senior year at ASU. That weight gain could be critical for a player who struggled to shed blocks last season.
He’s been working at nose tackle and 5-technique with both the first and second team this offseason. I expect that to continue throughout training camp and into the preseason.
No defensive lineman on this roster has as much riding on his performance this August than Sutton, who is fighting an uphill battle. He needs to show he can occupy gaps in base packages and shoot gaps in sub packages, neither of which he did last year.
Most assumed Washington (6-4, 264) would transition from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker but Fangio apparently has other plans. Throughout off-season practices, Washington was used at 5-technique with both the second- and third-team defense.
A wicked athlete with strength and speed, Washington has shown flashes of potential as a pass rusher. The club’s 2013 sixth-round pick now must demonstrated his power as inside lineman, something that won’t be easy for a player that was raw from the start.
At 264 pounds, it’s unclear how he’ll hold up at the point of attack, which is why I won’t be surprised if Washington eventually gets a look at outside linebacker at some point in the preseason. Sticking him at 5-technique is highly unlikely to work.
Dunn spent most of his rookie season on Chicago’s practice squad before being called up to the active roster in Week 12. He was activated for three contests down the stretch, picking up one tackle and one pass deflection.
At 6-2, 300, Dunn has decent size but he struggles with movement. He took most of his reps during the off-season with the second and third teams, so he’ll get a long look as a candidate for the practice squad once again this year – although a strong preseason may sneak him on to the back end of the roster.
Williams is an undrafted rookie out of East Carolina with the frame of a pure 3-4 nose tackle (6-1, 322). Somewhat surprisingly, he moves very well for a player of his size and has looked good traversing the tackling dummies in practice.
Williams has “sleeper” written all over him. Ratliff, Sutton and Ferguson are all hybrid nose tackles, yet Williams is that massive nose guard who could contribute right away on run downs. A good showing in Bourbonnais could propel Williams into a part-time role or, at the very least, a spot on the practice squad.
An undrafted rookie from Miami (Fl.), Olsen has very good size (6-5, 300) for the 5-technique position. He struggled with footwork during minicamps and will need better practices in Bourbonnais if he’s going to compete for a spot on the practice squad.
Goldman will rotate heavily at nose tackle with Sutton rotating occasionally at both 5-technique and nose.
- Camp Battle: Mundy vs. Vereen
- Camp Preview: Offensive Line
- Camp Battle: Ball vs. McManis
- Camp Preview: Tight End
- Camp Preview: Wide Receiver
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.