The Chicago Bears came into the season with Shea McClellin and Christian Jones as the club's starting inside linebackers, despite the fact neither had ever before played the position in a 3-4 defense.
As expected, both players have struggled to find consistency. In particular, neither Jones nor McClellin has shown power at the point of attack. Both are East-West linebackers, where their lateral agility is their biggest strength.
As a result, the Bears defense this year ranks 27th against the run.
Two weeks ago, John Timu was elevated from the practice squad to the active roster. The undrafted free agent was immediatley inserted into the starting lineup, with Jones a healthy scratch, against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 15.
Timu responded with a team-high 11 tackles against the Vikings. Against the Bucs this week, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio put Timu on the field for every single snap on defense and he once again led the team with 6 tackles.
Most believe, myself included, inside linebacker is the biggest personnel priority for the Bears this upcoming off-season. Yet if Timu is starter-worthy, then GM Ryan Pace will only need to spend big on one inside thumper.
Let's go to the All-22 game film to find out if Timu is a keeper.
This is an A-gap run by Bucs RB Doug Martin. The left guard clears to the second level to block Timu (blue), who spreads his legs and sinks his hips to take on the block.
Timu is able to power his way inside of the block, right into the path of the ball carrier.
Timu takes down Martin after a short gain.
Analysis: The biggest hole in the games of both McClelin and Jones is their inability to consistenty take on and shed blocks at the point of attack. Here we see Timu leverage into the blocker, then drive his way through the offensive lineman and make the tackle. This is North-South football right here, with a powerful linebacker who discards a massive guard and still drops Martin in the A gap.
This play as an off-tackle run by Viking RB Adrian Peterson, who will run right at Timu (blue).
The left guard comes off his double team and attacks Timu, who plants his right leg into the ground and drives into the blocker. Worth mentioning is the job of NT Eddie Goldman (#91), who is doing a great job of two-gapping and occupying two blockers, which eliminates the cut-back lane and keeps McClellin clean.
Timu then makes a quick forward move and uses his hands to disengage from the block.
Timu finds Peterson and takes him down at the line of scrimmage. Notice McClellin, nowhere near the play.
Analysis: Here again we see Timu's ability to stack and shed, then make the tackle. On this snap, Timu brings the contact to the blocker, which gives him the immediate advantage. He relies on his upper-body strength to swim upfield, then uses his vision to find the ball carrier and make the tackle. This was a very impressive snap.
This is an off-tackle run by Peterson. S Adrian Amos will blitz up the left C gap, with Timu trailing.
First off, notice defensive linemen Mitch Unrein and Will Sutton, both filling their gaps and taking away the weak-side cut back. Because of the blitz, Minnesota's fullback has to pick up Amos, which leaves Timu unblocked.
Timu stands his ground, uses good technique and takes down Peterson for no gain.
Analysis: This play was well designed by Fangio. The blitz by Amos frees up Timu, although taking Peterson down 1-on-1 is no easy feat. Yet Timu actually makes it look easy, showing balance and strength in making the tackle.
This is a stretch run left by Peterson. Timu will be in weak-side pursuit.
Play-side, McClellin (red) gets taken out. Notice Timu tracking Peterson as he works deftly through the wash.
Timu closes the gap and explodes into Peterson, taking him down after a 3-yard gain.
Analysis: Field vision is a very underrated aspect of an NFL player's skill set. If you can't see the big picture and you become tunnel-visioned, you have no chance to be consistently successful. Seeing the entire field can be difficult for Front 7 defenders, as they are typically working within a mass of enormous moving bodies. Yet here we see Timu not only track Peterson the entire play but he does it while working through the mass of humanity, never allowing his feet to get tripped up. His combination of speed, burst and power on this snap is top-tier.
This is a B gap run by Peterson. Timu is playing weak-side.
As McClellin (red) is blocked out of the play, Timu steps in and fills the interior gap, using his hands to keep separation from the bodies in front of him.
Timu drives into the gap and takes down Peterson after a 1-yard gain.
Analysis: Here is another example of Timu's field vision, as he reads the play and executes a perfect run fit. Notable here is the hit he puts on Peterson, one of the strongest running backs in the NFL, which drops him in his tracks.
This is an A gap run by FB Zach Line. Timu (blue) is shaded over the center, showing blitz.
Timu holds his ground and is immediately double-teamed, yet he doesn't get pushed backward. Instead, he uses his lower body to anchor and his uppper body to drive through the block attempt.
Timu works around the block and takes down Line after a 2-yard gain.
Analysis: Just one more example of Timu's ability to power through block attempts and still find the ball carrier. This snap is especially impressive, as he's able to fight off a double team before making the tackle.
Is Timu a long-term option?
Yes, Timu is a keeper. He is not a player around whom you will build your defense but his North-South playing style has a ton of value, particularly on run downs.
Timu attacks gaps with authority and he's not passive when taking on blocks. In fact, it's just the opposite, as he's often the one who initiates contact. That puts him in a position to eventually shed the block, for which he uses his massive upper body strength (he benched 225 pounds a whopping 33 times at his pro day this past off-season).
In addition, Timu is a smart player who shows good read-and-react ability, although it's an area in which he can improve. He also has great field vision that, combined with his burst and power, makes him an assett against opposing rushing attacks.
Timu does have some limitations in coverage but he's in no way a liability on passing downs.
The Bears should still pursue a top-flight inside linebacker either in free agency or the draft, as Timu would be an ideal secondary option at inside linebacker. If opposing offenses are too concerned with a big thumper in the middle, it would result in Timu getting plenty of one-on-one blocks. On film, Timu eats up single blocks, so he can be a major weapon as a No. 2 ILB.
There's very little chance McClellin will return next season, while Jones is more of a backup. Timu has earned an opportunity to start next year. If he takes advantage of that opportunity and continues playing at a high level, he'll be on the field in Week 1 of the 2016 regular season.