Heading into the 2013 regular-season finale against the Green Bay Packers, the Chicago Bears were on the precipice of their first playoff berth since 2010.
With 3:34 left in the first half, the Packers lined up for a 1st-and-10 play at the Bears' 17-yard line. Aaron Rodgers dropped back to pass and was hit by Julius Peppers as he released the pass. The ball fluttered to the ground, right at the feet of linebacker James Anderson, who gave the pigskin a cursory glance and walked away.
A second later, Green Bay receiver Jarrett Boykin picked the ball off the ground and strolled into the end zone for a touchdown. The Bears ended up losing the contest by five points, which knocked them out of the playoffs.
Anderson's lackadaisical attitude toward a loose ball was particularly head scratching because the Bears defense for nearly a decade under Lovie Smith was a turnover-savvy unit that put a premium on scooping loose balls. During practices, the defense was taught to scoop incomplete passes, just to make recovering loose balls a habit.
Yet in the biggest moment of the biggest game of the season, Anderson reacted to a fumbled ball like a vegetarian reacts to a medium rare T-bone.
That missed opportunity was a microcosm of the Bears' issues at the linebacker position the past three seasons. Anderson was a disaster, Lance Briggs did little more than collect a paycheck his final two seasons in Chicago and D.J. Williams couldn't stay healthy.
Last season, new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio installed his 3-4 system and inserted two players, Shea McClelin and Christian Jones, who had never before played inside linebacker at the pro level. Not surprisingly, both players struggled, showing hesitancy and indecision on a weekly basis, with Jones eventually getting benched, forcing Fangio to rotate a trio of inexperience in John Timu, Jonathan Anderson and LaRoy Reynolds.
This off-season, it was clear as day that inside linebacker was the biggest position of need on the roster.
As a result, GM Ryan Pace aggressively pursued the top free agent ILBs and this week signed Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman.
It's no stretch to say the pairing of Trevathan and Freeman gives the Bears the best 3-4 inside linebacker duo in the NFL.
This is nothing new for Trevathan, who was one part of the best 3-4 ILB combo in Denver alongside Brandon Marshall. Trevathan is a three-down linebacker who attacks the line of scrimmage and plays with outstanding instincts. He's exceptional at fighting off blocks and then recovering to make tackles. He's a sound tackler who takes quality angles, one with the speed to track ball carriers sideline to sideline. In addition, he has the proficiency in coverage to matchup with the best tight ends in the NFL, including New England's Rob Gronkowski.
In Trevathan, the film shows one of the best all-around linebackers in the NFL, one who is only 25 years old and brings with him a championship pedigree.
With Freeman, the Bears have a player with seven years of professional experience. A Division III player in college, he spent three seasons in the CFL before signing with the Colts in 2012. In his four years as a starter for Indianapolis, Freeman tallied 478 tackles, 12.0 sacks, 16 pass breakups, 4 interceptions, 2 touchdowns and 8 forced fumbles. Those are elite numbers.
Like Trevathan, Freeman is north-south linebacker who fills run gaps with authority, yet has the awareness and instincts to be a threat in coverage as well.
The biggest problem for the Bears linebackers the past three years has been a lack of aggression. With Davis, McClellin and Jones, it was commonplace for them to stand five yards deep of the line of scrimmage and wait for running backs to come to them. They each had a lot of tackles in Chicago but the vast majority of those came after three- to five-yard gains.
That won't be an issue with Trevathan and Freeman, who both play an aggressive brand of football.
Additionally, both players are veteran team leaders who come from winning organizations. Their playmaking ability will make everyone around them better. The defensive line can occupy blockers with confidence, knowing Trevathan and Freeman will take full advantage of the space offered them. In coverage, the secondary won't feel the need to stray away from their zones, or peek to other pass catchers, as they know the inside linebackers will be positioned correctly.
And if anyone gets out of line, the two new veterans - who have combined for 13 playoff appearances, including three AFC Championships and two Super Bowls, the past four years - will hold them accountable.
McClellin and Jones weren't leaders, while Trevathan and Freeman will take ownership of Fangio's defense.
Speaking of Fangio, he had his most success in the NFL when he had Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis at inside linebacker. Trevathan and Freeman are a step down from Bowman and Willis, but only a small step. Fangio will surely get the most out of his new ILBs, which will bring his defense to an entirely new level.
The Bears still have work to do. The club needs at least one more starting defensive lineman, as well as a safety and a cornerback. Those upgrades should come in the draft but even if they don't, just the presence of Trevathan and Freeman will provide an immediate and substantial upgrade to the defense as it stands.
The impact of these two inside linebackers cannot be overstated. With Trevathan and Freeman, the Bears not only have the top 3-4 ILB pairing in the NFL, but also the foundation pieces around whom the team can build for many years going forward.