As many of you know, I am not only an avid Bears fan, I am also a defensive scheme junkie. Last year, during the season, I was often spouting off and criticizing the Bears defensive schemes. Even during the game, I was calling out mismatches pre-snap and I was often right (Annoyingly so to those sitting near me in the stands)
With the season over, I’d like to identify and illustrate exactly what I believe went wrong in 2009.
First, let’s look at some stats: For the sake of comparison, I will use 2006, a year in which the Bears were dominant. I will refer to these stats later.
Yds / Gm: 294.1, Rank – 5th
Yds / Play: 4.6, Rank –2nd (tied)
3rd down %: 31%, Rank 2nd
TOP: 29.47, Rank 12th
Points Allowed / Gm: 15.9, Rank 3rd
Sacks: 40, Rank 8th (tied)
Turnovers caused: 44, Rank – 1st
Overall Defensive Ranking based on an average of all key Defensive statistics: 2nd
Yds / Gm: 337.8, Rank – 17th
Yds / Play: 5.2, Rank – 18th
3rd down %: 41%, Rank 27th
TOP: 31.45, Rank 12th
Points Allowed / Gm: 23.4, Rank 25th
Sacks: 35, Rank 13th (tied)
Turnovers caused: 28, Rank – 17th
Overall Defensive Ranking based on an average of all key Defensive statistics: 19th
* Stats by NFL.Com
Since Lovie Smith took over in 2004, he has utilized the Cover 2 as his primary defense. For those not familiar with the Cover 2, it is essentially a 4-3 zone defense that lines up with 4 Linemen (DE, DT, DT, DE) at the Line of Scrimmage, 3 Linebackers behind the Line (Strong, Middle, Weak) , 2 Corner backs, and 2 Safeties (Strong Side Safety, and Free Safety).
The defense itself can be an extremely effective defense as one its primary function is to force long yardage on 3rd downs and force a team into an obvious pass situation. It does this by allowing the LB’s to move up and play a gap on 1st and 2nd downs (essentially stacking the box with 7) to cancel the rush.
On 3rd down and long situations, the Strong side Linebacker can be replaced by a “Nickel Back” who is essentially another safety, the other 2 Linebackers can play back also essentially having 7 pass defenders.
One of the key reasons teams like to use the Cover 2 as a primary is it’s very easily adaptable pre-snap without changing personnel. There is a negative; when Tampa began using their variation of the Cover 2 (AKA Tampa 2), the defense seemed impenetrable at first. However, coaches were quickly able to exploit “weaknesses” in the zone. The Cover 2 leaves 3 primary weak or soft spots:
1) Deep middle (between) the Free and Strong Safety.
2) Behind the CB on the right
3) Behind the CB on the left.
The positive to these soft spots are that they are all between 10 and 15 yards down field. However, this positive is also a negative as if they are exploited successfully, it is almost always a first down.
To better protect the soft spots, there are 3 extremely critical keys that a defense must have:
1) An extremely strong MLB who also is extremely fast.
2) Above-average speed and smart Safeties who can also hit hard.
3) An extremely quick pass rush.
Let’s look at how each helps.
When looking up the definition of a MLB in a Cover 2 in the dictionary, Brian Urlacher’s picture should be next to the word. His Size to Speed ratio is a perfect match. A MLB must be able to do 3 things well:
1) Identify and annouce the offensive set and line up the D accordingly
2) Plug the open “A” gap on a rush up the middle, as well as work side line to side line on rushes off tackle.
3) Line up close to the line every down, but be able retreat back into the secondary and plug the soft spot on pass plays.
Urlacher’s speed at linebacker gives him the unique ability to move up to the line, sometimes pretending to bite on a hard count to fake the blitz, and then retreating into pass coverage in the deep middle.
In 2006, Urlacher was not only considered the best MLB, he was also coming off a 2005 year where he was considered the best overall defender in the game.
Many will say Urlacher has lost a step, but the truth is, in 2007 Brian Urlacher was playing hurt, with an injured neck/back. While many “glass half empty” people will say, it’s no big deal to play with a bad back, Steve McMichael (of ’85 Bears fame), is quoted as saying, that “With the way linebackers have to fight off Linemen, Tight Ends, and tackle big Running backs, a linebacker with a bad back can never be expected to play better than 40-50 %.”
In 2008, he missed pre-season conditioning, OTA’s and went easy in training camp recovering from off-season neck surgery and was nowhere near 100%. In 2009, Urlacher reported to camp in shape, injury free and ready to regain his title as best MLB in football. That all came crashing down on a freak, season ending, wrist injury in week 1 against the Packers. My son, a big Urlacher fan, asked me how bad it is to the Bears defense losing #54. My response “The only thing worse to the team would be losing Jay Cutler”. I actually think I was wrong. Losing Urlacher for the season was worse.
The most obvious stat to prove this is going from 31% and 2nd overall on 3rd downs in 2006 to 41% and ranked 27th in 2009. Hunter Hillenmeyer lacked the speed to get back into middle-deep pass coverage on 3rd down, and we were repeatedly torched.
Many will argue that his neck surgeries and back issues are just an excuse. To those who say that, I counter with a very small stat: Greenbay was held scoreless and with no first downs in the first quarter prior to Urlacher going down. After, as one fan noted: ”It was night and day. As soon as Urlacher left the game last night, the middle opened up on both running and pass plays. He was playing like he did during his perennial Pro Bowl years. Depth at linebacker, yes, but replacing one of the best in the league doesn't happen. We've taken a big hit here “.
In a Cover 2 system the safeties are responsible for about 25-30 yards of field deep and half the field across. The Strong Safety will line up on the strong side (Side with the Tight End), and the free will cover the other half. The Free Safety also acts as the second in command on the field. Helping to position the defenders.
The key for the safeties is that they must be fast enough to cover a large portion of the field, all while being able to come up and act as the last line of defense if a run gets through the line and LB’s. And… If a WR gets behind a CB on a sideline deep or middle slant pattern – the other soft spots, their job is to keep that WR in front of them and prevent the big TD play. And… if that WR should happen to catch a pass there, deliver a crushing blow to make him regret doing so, and not want to do it again. Having a strong set of safeties allows your CB’s to take risks, and go for INT’s and strips. Note the 2006 Bears lead the league in combined fumble recoveries and INT’s. The 2009 Bears, not so much…
The Bears have not had an efficient Free Safety since Mike Brown went down and then was traded. Brown was in for a big chunk of the 2006 season. Brian Urlacher often referred to him as the "actual leader of the defense." He was most certainly missed in the Super bowl when Danieal Manning was beat deep by Reggie Wayne on a blown coverage for the Colts first TD.
Over the last few seasons, the Bears have had nothing short of a revolving door at Free Safety. Kevin Payne began the 2009 season at free and was replaced quickly by Al Afalava, then by Danieal Manning. Then By Craig Steltz. Then by Josh Bullocks. Lovie was constantly putting the guy he thought would best fit each game. This, in my opinion was a huge mistake and essentially crippled the second most important defensive position on the field. This while having a middle tier MLB in for the season was enough to destroy the Bears defense.
While the Bears 2009 versus Bears 2006 defenses were only 5 sacks less, what was missing was something that was obvious while watching the games. The Bears lacked consistent pressure, especially when rushing only 4.
Keep in mind the Bears Nickel package (3rd downs) is completely based on dropping 7 defenders back, but mandating that you still get pressure with your front 4. Early in the season, Tommie Harris looked slow and hapless. Alex Brown and Adawale Ogunlea looked good early, but faded near the end.
By season’s end, almost 1/3 of the Bears sacks were caused by a LB or DB. While it’s fun to watch a safety or linebacker blitz and sack, it leaves an already shaky defensive backfield even more vulnerable - especially against quick armed smart QB's. The other thing that was very frustrating, sacks aside, was seeing QB’s have 5-7 seconds in the pocket to throw. Not only were our front 4 not sacking, we also were not getting decent pressure for most of the season.
In a Cover 2, it takes a receiver between 3 and 4 seconds to hit the soft spot in the zone. With no pass rush, a QB can wait for the receiver to make his move to the weak spot and launch. With a shaky safety, and a slow MLB the Bears were no match for experienced QB’s. Carson Palmer, Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, etc.. all had field days beating up our Cover 2.
The Bears need to generate 30-35 sacks and constant pressure, especially on 3rd down with their front 4. Doing so will cause disruption, hurries, INT’s, loss of yardage, free their LB's to focus on their intended objectives, and ultimately put the ball back in Jay Cutlers hands.
Outlook for 2010:
Brian Urlacher is reportedly already near 100%. His wrist injury, although season ending in 2009, was not like blowing out a knee or ankle. He has been bench pressing for over a month now showing confidence in the wrist. He will be back and he will be a force. Additionally, we now have a lot more experience at MLB and I feel that Hunter can come in on certain situations and play the Mike if needed. This will help prolong Urlacher’s season, keep him rested and ready to play 100% right till the last tick of the clock.
We still do not have an answer here, but Lovie Smith, and Jerry Angelo know it’s an issue that they plan to focus on. The Bears may be targeting Oshiomogho Atogwe (currently with the Rams). If they land him, they are set. If not, my hope is they pick a dedicated Free Safety and stick with him from training camp on. Do not make this a revolving door position. Regardless of the path, the position will be much more experienced and much better in 2010.
First, two words: Julius Peppers. I look not only for Peppers to get 10-12 Sacks in 2010, I also look for him to cause constant pressure. I also look for teams to be confused as to where to play their TE. If they go strong on Peppers side, look for Alex Brown to improve his 7.5 sack total from a year ago.
Second, Tommie Harris looked good in spurts last year, but near the end of the year began looking like the 2006 Harris. He looked dominant. Coming off a pre-season knee surgery, Harris came into camp out of shape (endurance wise). I look for him to be in condition and a force from day 1.
Lastly, I really like the combination of Israel Idonije and Mark Anderson at the other DT position. (Not sure the Bears agree as they might want them as back-up DE's....) Last year they combined for 5 sacks. I feel 2010 could see this number jump to 7-9 total. If we can get 30-35 sacks from these 5 guys alone, we could start hearing a lot of ’85 Bears analogies…
The stars don’t really have to align. This isn’t magic. We just need Urlacher, Atogwe (or whoever the FS is), Harris and Peppers to play big and the rest of the guys to play to their potential. If they do, look for a top 3-5 defense from Chicago in 2010.