For the past two seasons, the Chicago Bears defense has been a disaster. The unit finished 2014 30th in total defense, 31st in points allowed and 30th against the pass. In 2013, they finished 30th in total defense, 30th in points allowed and 32nd against the run.
For a franchise with a proud history of defensive dominance, that just wasn’t acceptable.
Gone is the former coaching staff, as well as the club’s historic 4-3 system, to be replaced by new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and his 3-4 defensive front.
For the Bears, struggles on defense start up front. In particular, the unit has failed to provide consistent pass rush. The following chart outlines the number of team sacks the past four seasons, as well as their league rank each year.
As we can see, the Bears have ranked higher than 16th in the NFL in total sacks just once since 2011. That’s a problem.
The Bears added a pass-rush piece in free agency with the acquisition of OLB Pernell McPhee, who had 7.5 sacks last season as a backup for the Ravens, but otherwise the club’s edge rushers are all familiar faces.
McPhee should provide a boost but, in reality, it will be up to Fangio to find ways to collapse the pocket on opposing quarterbacks. With his current personnel, Fangio is going to need a lot of creativity.
With the San Francisco 49ers the past four years, Fangio leaned heavily on outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks to pressure the pocket. Smith averaged more than 10 sacks per season under Fangio, despite missing 14 games the past two years combined, while Brooks chipped in seven sacks per season.
In essence, Fangio could count on 17 sacks from his edge rushers each year. As a result, he shelved his more exotic blitz packages and chose instead to run more base fronts.
The following chart shows Fangio’s blitz percentages the past four seasons with the 49ers, as well as the league’s overall blitz percentages.
|Year||49ers Blitz %||NFL Blitz %|
We see here that Fangio was well below the league average in terms of blitzes calls in every year with the 49ers. That was due mainly to the prowess of both Brooks and Smith as pass rushers off the edge.
In Chicago, Fangio won’t have that luxury.
While McPhee should be a very productive and versatile player, he’s still a relative unknown, one who has never played full-time starter reps and has an injury history.
Jared Allen is the NFL’s active sack leader but at 33, he’s clearly on the down slope of his distinguished career. Sam Acho has 3-4 experience from his four years in Arizona but he’s better suited for a rotational role. David Bass is an exciting young option but he’s not battle tested and has never played outside linebacker in his football career.
Then there are Lamarr Houston (ACL) and Willie Young (Achilles), who are still on the mend from surgery last year. Neither has practiced to this point in the off-season and it’s unclear when they will return or how effective they’ll be once back on the field.
Fangio has a few options at outside linebacker but it’s a position group littered with question marks. In addition, only McPhee and Acho have experience playing full time in a 3-4, so there’s a substantial learning curve for nearly everyone at the position. So even if Houston and Young return in the relatively near future, only then will they begin the process of learning a new position, which takes time.
Bottom line is that Fangio does not have the same horses off the edge he had in San Francisco. It’s not a position of weakness for the Bears but it’s definitely not a team strength.
As a result, expect Fangio to increase his blitz frequency substantially in 2015. He used a vanilla pass rush in San Francisco because he could. Using that same strategy is unlikely to generate the same level of production in Chicago.
During mandatory minicamp, we got a good look at some of those blitz packages, which will rely just as much on the inside linebackers as the outside linebackers.
In that area, the Bears are well stocked. Currently, Shea McClellin and Christian Jones are the starting middle linebackers, both of whom are experienced pass rushers. McClellin was a defensive end his first two NFL seasons, while Jones rushed off the edge his final year at Florida State. Getting after the quarterback is not a foreign concept for the two young ILBs and their experience should give Fangio the confidence to send them into opposing backfields.
In addition, expect McPhee to be an integral part of Fangio’s pressure schemes. While in Baltimore, McPhee rushed from outside linebacker, defensive end and inside linebacker. It’s a fact not lost on Fangio, who during minicamp moved McPhee all over the defense before the snap.
Remember, Fangio was known for his blitz-heavy systems during his previous stints as defensive coordinator in Carolina, Indianapolis and Houston. With all of those teams, that was out of necessity, as will be the case with the Bears this season.
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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.