With off-season workouts done and out of the way, the Chicago Bears are two days down in Training Camp. With the pads due to strap on today, tracking the defense’s development has been tricky.
One of the biggest points of emphasis going into the preseason will be the defense, namely the outside linebackers. Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and David Bass all must make the transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker in base packages under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
With a new scheme will come new positions. Under a defense that has ranked in the bottom five in nearly every major category the past two years, the unit’s pass rushers have left a lot to be desired and now will be expected to learn a new position.
Allen is going into his 12th year in the league, all of which have been as a 4-3 defensive end. At 33-years-old, the long-time veteran had his worst year as a professional posting just 6.5 sacks. While he defended the run quite well, he was paid $15.5 million in guarantees because of his past pass rushing productivity, which simply was not there in 2014.
When asked if he looked at himself as a starter in Fangio’s new scheme, Allen said: “In my mind, yeah. In my mind I still think I’m the best at what I do.”
“Last year sucked, I’m not going to sugar coat it. There’s always circumstances around it but it is what it is and I’m ready to go out and bust someone’s head open, honestly.”
When asked what the biggest challenge in his position switch would be, he said “probably how to rotate my hips on my drops. I think that’s what it is.”
Age and the ability to switch to a new role will be the biggest keys to how successful Allen will be in this new scheme. Could Julius Peppers be the appropriate measuring stick to gauge Allen’s success in 2015?
In his first year In Chicago in 2014, Young had a career year with 10 sacks before rupturing his Achilles tendon. Yet out of those 10 sacks, the majority came with the game well out of hand.
He has been on the field for the start of Training Camp but watching him move through drills, it’s very evident he is nowhere near 100 percent. Two of his best attributes are his length and overall size, which if used right in the new scheme could contribute to quality production.
“My main focus has just been coming back from last season’s mishap,” Young said. “For the most part, I’ve just been focusing on recovering from the injury.”
“I want to be turned loose tomorrow,” Young said when asked about putting the pads on.
Young said this new scheme and new responsibility is in no way similar to his past responsibilities as a 4-3 defensive end.
“Heck no! No! Not even close,” he said. “I might’ve had two things to worry about at defensive end, regardless of how far out I was: keying the ball and getting the strength call from a linebacker. That isn’t so much the case anymore. I’ve got to give a call, take a call, listen for a call and watch out for a call and also key the ball.”
Out of all the remaining players from 2014, Young may have the most trouble adjusting to his new scheme.
Houston, who was one of two big-ticket free agents in 2014, is also coming off a season ending injury, which happened to be his ACL.
In eight games, Houston tallied just 11 tackles and one lone sack, coming after Tom Brady had been pulled from of a blowout loss, which also happened to be the cause of Houston’s ACL tear.
Although the recovery for such an injury isn’t what it used to be, it will still take a large effort for the 28-year-old to get back on the field and play at a top level during the preseason.
It’s worth noting that a large majority of his career sacks did come from a two-point stance. Some of those from outside linebacker and the majority from the wide nine as a defensive end.
Houston is in the second year of his five-year, $35 million deal, so his production will be key for his overall value and, most importantly, the success of this new unit.
The former undrafted free agent is going into his third year and if OTAs are any indication, this move may have been the best thing for him.
The 24-year-old is coming off of his most productive season as a professional with 10 tackles and three sacks. At 6-4 and with good speed, Bass has the chance to really make a name for himself if he can produce enough during camp and get playing time during preseason.
Overall, Bass has the ability to become a mainstay at the position and add high production on top of that.
McPhee was the big addition of this off-season and comes with high expectations, especially after the recent history of Raven’s pass rushers who have left through free agency.
He signed a five-year, $38-million deal coming off his most productive season: 27 tackles and 7.5 sacks in a part-time role. McPhee’s biggest value will come through his versatility and familiarity with the newly implemented scheme.
When asked what would be different under Fangio, he said, “Just drop back a little. Other than that, I think the same thing, just to go out and make plays, be a leader, some of what I was like in Baltimore, but we had other guys. Just make plays basically."
“I think it’s real tricky. I think coach Vic Fangio does a great job disguising his defense and bringing different blitzes.”
Head coach John Fox is happy McPhee is in the fold.
“I mean he’s a big powerful man,” Fox said. “A lot of the time he’s over the tight end and that’s a good matchup for us with most tight ends. There’s a lot of ways to rush the passer, it’s not just all speed, and he’s got a good combination of speed and quickness in short areas, as well as power."
McPhee will be the cornerstone of this pass rush and ultimately his success could have a direct correlation to the unit’s overall success.
Acho was a former forth-round pick who had solid production until injuries struck over the last two years.
He brings good size and experience but does not have as much upside as a pass rusher but still could provide good run support.
“It’s new. It’s new,” Acho said when asked about Fangio’s defense. “And I’ve been on some teams where we have new coaches and staff so I’ve experienced a little bit of the newness that comes with Training Camp with a new team and new coach."
Fox was very complimentary of Acho.
“He’s smart, he’s got good coverage ability, he’s played the position at this level for some time,” said Fox. “You know so far that’s kind of what I’ve seen and we’re anxious to see him [in pads].”
Acho is currently working with the first team and it’s his job to lose.
Aaron Leming has years of salary cap knowledge and has written for Rant Sports, Bears Draft On Tap, and Cover 32. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report.