In new Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s defense, pass rush will come mainly from the outside linebacker position.
“We need some outside linebackers that can rush the passer,” Fangio said during minicamp. “They have to have end ability to rush the passer. Those are important guys.”
The Bears have struggled to consistently pressure the quarterback the past two seasons – they finished 16th in sacks (39) last year and 31st in sacks (31) in 2013 – and are looking to reverse that recent trend.
The club’s outside linebackers, most of whom have played defensive end their entire careers, will be rushing from a two-point stance in base 3-4 packages, yet will revert back to defensive end in sub packages, which are essentially 4-3 Over fronts. In addition, they’ll be asked to occasionally drop into coverage, a foreign concept for most.
“We expect a good pass rush from them, so that’s no different than being an end,” said Fangio. “And they’ve got to be able to function in coverage a little bit. We’re not going to have them doing tough jobs in coverage. They’ll be doing things they’re used to doing as an end, except they’re going to be doing it standing up and at the end of the line. It’s called a 3-4 defense, but in some ways you can call it a 5-2. We like bigger guys out there. I don’t foresee it being a major problem, although there’s a lot of learning and growing that has to take place.”
With training camp less than a month away, let’s analyze Chicago’s outside linebackers, a position group that will be critical to the club’s success this season.
McPhee was signed to four-year, $38.75 million contract this off-season, despite being a backup for four seasons in Baltimore. Yet the Bears believe he’s ready to take on a more prominent role in Chicago.
McPhee is one of the only outside linebackers with previous experience at the position. Playing in the Raven’s 3-4 defense, McPhee was used in a number of different roles, in base and sub packages, at defensive end, outside linebacker and inside linebacker. His 3-4 experience and positional versatility are what earned him the big deal in March.
“I played defensive end in the 4-3, I played defensive end in the 3-4 and I played outside linebacker in the 3-4,” McPhee said. “We practiced against the 49ers last year when I was with Baltimore and their defense was very similar to us, so I think the scheme will be easy for me to adjust to. I look forward to helping some of the guys who might have a harder time adjusting to it.”
McPhee picked up 7.5 sacks last season, which would have been second most for the Bears, playing just 540 snaps. For reference, Jared Allen had 5.5 sacks in 910 snaps last year.
The potential is there for McPhee and the Bears expect him to take on a large role as the club’s primary edge rusher. Yet it’s his ability to play multiple positions that makes McPhee so attractive. During mandatory minicamp, Fangio began moving McPhee around pre-snap in a “rover” role, blitzing him from the A, B and C gaps.
What’s amazing about McPhee is that, despite his large frame (6-3, 280), he’s very athletic and light on his feet. During OTAs, I witnessed McPhee line up across from a running back lined up wide left and run stride for stride with him down the sideline. A player with that type of size/speed combo can have a lot of success under Fangio.
After signing a hefty four-year, $32 million contract last off-season, Allen produced the worst campaign of his distinguished NFL career. He finished 2014 with a career-low 5.5 sacks, despite starting 15 games.
At 33 years old, Allen will now move to outside linebacker for the first time in 12 NFL seasons. During minicamp and OTAs, Allen was third man up in the OLB rotation behind McPhee and Sam Acho, and struggled to pick up some of the new 3-4 concepts.
It’s a scenario that most consider ill-fated but for Allen there’s hope.
First, he’s still quick and athletic. He’s a svelte 6-6, 270 and showed last year his prowess in the open field dropping into coverage on zone blitzes. During off-season practices, I saw him knock down two passes, both after jumping into the throwing line as he flared to his flat zone.
Second, Allen’s 2014 campaign wasn’t a total bust. He led the team with 32 QB hurries, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), while adding four pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Was he overpaid last year? Absolutely. Can he earn his $12.5 million salary this season? No doubt.
Allen does not have the same burst he did earlier in his career but working from a two-point stance with a head of steam will mitigate his initial get-off. In addition, he’ll be working as part of a rotation this year, which should help keep him fresh as the season wears on.
Acho was signed to a one-year deal this off-season due in large part to his experience playing four years in Arizona’s 3-4 system. The former fourth-round pick out of Texas racked up 11.0 sacks his first two years in the league but was felled by injury in 2013 and the served in a reserve role last season.
While Acho’s sack numbers have dropped off the past two years (2.0 sacks total) he’s raised his level of play against the run. Per PFF, Acho graded -10.8 and -8.9 stopping the run his first two seasons in the NFL, yet graded a healthy +6.5 last season. That’s substantial.
During minicamp and OTAs, Acho started alongside McPhee with the first team and rotated with Allen. Acho does not have great speed or agility but he plays with good balance and he’s smart. His past experience in a 3-4 system softens his learning curve and if he produces in the preseason, expect Acho to be a contributing member of the OLB rotation in 2015.
Houston tore his ACL in Week 9 last year, while Young ruptured his Achilles tendon in Week 16. Both underwent surgeries and neither has resumed football activities.
Young and Houston were present during off-season practices, working individually on the sidelines with the training staff. Neither player had a cast or brace on his respective injury and both were moving well.
The Bears are banking on the healthy return of either Houston or Young, and would be elated if both could contribute at some point this season. When that will be is anyone’s guess.
Houston has limited experience in a 3-4 and was leading the team in QB hurries before his injury, while Young led the team in sacks last season. Both are starter-caliber edge rushers that play the run very well. The timeframe for their returns is critical, as it adds two quality players into the OLB mix, while adding depth to a thin position.
Bass was a standout player during off-season practices. He was quick off the edge rushing from a two-point stance and was highly disruptive in the backfield.
The 24-year-old has shown flashes of potential in the past but has failed to garner consistent playing time. With Houston and Young sidelined, Bass has stepped into the spotlight and caught the eye of the coaching staff.
“I think he’s worked very hard,” head coach John Fox said during minicamp. “I think sometimes new is better and he’s taken to it pretty well.”
Bass is the wildcard of the OLB group. He’s young and inexperienced but he’s athletic, quick and has a knack for making plays. He still has an uphill climb ahead of him but if Bass can carry over his minicamp performance to training camp in Bourbonnais, he’ll force the coaching staff to keep him on the final 53-man roster.
In addition, Bass is a core member of the club’s special teams units.
Woestmann started 24 games during his collegiate career at Vanderbilt, racking up 100 tackles, 20.5 for a loss, and 13 sacks. He’ll be fighting for a spot on the practice squad.
- Camp Preview: Defensive Line
- Camp Battle: Mundy vs. Vereen
- Camp Preview: Offensive Line
- Camp Battle: Ball vs. McManis
- Camp Preview: Tight End
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.