By Adam Hoge-
There have only been two preseason games, but we’re starting to see evidence of the schematic changes Mel Tucker is bringing to the Bears’ defense this season.
A lot of the new wrinkles are sure to be saved for the regular season, but some of the basic fundamental techniques have been on display both in training camp and the preseason.
The most obvious of these changes can be found on the defensive line, where the Bears have gone from a straight-forward one-gap “get-up-the-field” approach to what would most accurately be referred to as a gap-and-a-half scheme.
For the last decade, the Bears’ defense has been a true one-gap defense, attacking the gaps in-between opposing offensive linemen. Their goal was to get upfield and put pressure on the quarterback as soon as possible. Getting pressure with the front-four was the key to success with Lovie Smith’s Tampa-2.
The downside of that approach, however, is that it can leave you vulnerable against the run if your run fits aren’t sound and your linebackers aren’t able to stack and shed blocks to make the tackles. Welcome to 2013, when the Bears’ defense couldn’t stop the run at all.
In a true two-gap scheme, the defensive linemen play the offensive linemen, instead of the gaps between them. In doing so, the pass rush is negated, but it keeps blockers off the linebackers, allowing them to come in and make the tackles. Defensive coordinators then scheme with edge rushing linebackers to create mismatches and get after the passer.
Based on what we’ve seen in training camp and the preseason, it appears the Bears’ defensive line is blending both approaches together. They are definitely attacking offensive linemen at the line of scrimmage, but it isn’t a true two-gap approach. They are trying to keep the offensive linemen off their linebackers, while also pressuring the quarterback through a gap.
“It’s more about the linebackers,” defensive tackle Stephen Paea said early on in training camp. “It’s just the way we play now is less penetration and more of no (offensive) linemen can touch the linebackers. If all three of the linebackers make the Pro Bowl, that means our D-line is doing great things.”
So far, the results are mixed. The defensive line appears to be getting adequate pressure on the quarterback, but the Bears still allowed an 18-yard gain by Toby Gerhart early on against the Jaguars last week and quarterback Chad Henne found success with short underneath passes that racked up big chunks of yardage.
Even with the tweaks up front, nothing changes for the linebackers in terms of being disciplined and reading their run-pass keys. Right now, that’s the biggest area where Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic need to grow.
Dialing Up McClellin
Speaking of McClellin, the Bears have used him exactly how you thought they would. He’s frequently walking up to the line of scrimmage and rushing out of a two-point stance.
With 3:45 left in the first quarter last week, the Jaguars faced 3rd & 13 from the Bears’ 26-yard line. Jacksonville deployed “20” personnel with two backs and no tight ends, leaving three wide receivers on the field. The Bears countered with their nickel defense, with McClellin and Lance Briggs as the two linebackers.
Before the snap, McClellin walked up to the line of scrimmage, lining up in a two-point stance next to left end Trevor Scott. The rest of the line (from left-to-right) consisted of Jeremiah Ratliff, Lamarr Houston (kicked inside) and Jared Allen.
The Bears rushed five with McClellin, but the Jaguars still had the numbers with six blockers. Jacksonville failed to hold the rush, however, and the breakdown occurred on the right side of their offensive line where they had to account for McClellin. After initial contact with Scott, right guard Jacques McClendon tried to pass him off to right tackle Austin Pasztor. But Pasztor and fullback Will Ta’ufo’ou both went after McClellin, which gave Scott a free lane to the quarterback. Henne slipped as he tried to step up and Scott had an easy sack.
Unfortunately, this play was negated by a bad illegal contact call on cornerback Kelvin Hayden, but it still provided a look as to how the Bears hope to create confusion with McClellin on the edge. The execution by the Jaguars was poor, but that’s exactly what the Bears are trying to force on those obvious third-down passing situations.
Meanwhile, on the very next play, McClellin once again walked up to the line of scrimmage, this time over the B-gap (between the left guard and left tackle). He put a nice move on left tackle Luke Joeckel and stopped Jordan Todman in the backfield for a three-yard loss.
McClellin still has a ways to go to prove he’ll be a reliable three-down linebacker in the NFL, but he took a step forward last week against the Jaguars. The instincts need to continue to develop and the Bears will be looking for more improvement this Friday in Seattle.
Bostic Continuing To Learn
On the 3rd & 13 that was previously mentioned, it’s notable that McClellin was on the field with Briggs, mainly because he appeared to receive the fewest nickel snaps with the first-team unit in training camp. Most times, it was Bostic or D.J. Williams on the field with Briggs.
So on the very next third down against the Jaguars (3rd & 8), it wasn’t surprising to see Bostic paired with Briggs in nickel personnel.
Why the switch? It could be an indication of personnel packages that will be used (something I expect in the regular season) or it could just be part of the on-going competition between McClellin and Bostic.
Either way, Bostic is still going through a learning process, but is showing signs of improvement. Reading his run-pass keys is where he appears to struggle the most, but that comes with experience.
On one play against the Jaguars, Bostic got caught looking in the backfield and it cost the Bears a first down. Jacksonville ran a play-action boot with wide receiver Allen Hurns coming across the field from right to left. The Bears were in zone and Bostic was in position to pick up Hurns, but he bit slightly on the run. Watching the play, you can see Bostic experience the “uh-oh” moment when he sees Hurns cutting behind him. By then it was too late and Chad Henne found Hurns for the first down.
But this is where experience comes in. Coaches can live with those plays in the preseason as long as you learn from them.
Two plays later, the Jaguars ran a similar play, this time with tight end D.J. Tialavea coming across the field. It was another play-action boot in the same direction, but Bostic read the fake right away and blanketed Tialavea. With everyone covered, Trevor Scott ran Henne out of bounds.
Mel Tucker specifically mentioned boot-legs as an area where the Bears can improve and he believes the Seahawks will be a good test Friday.
“When you have a guy like Russell Wilson, who’s fast, he’s quick, he’s elusive and he’s accurate and he’s a passer. He’s on the edge, he’s a dual-threat. So you really have to be on top of your game,” Tucker said. “And that’s why we think this is an excellent opportunity for us this week to improve in some of those areas.”
- The Bears have admitted that their run-blocking has not been up to par so far in the preseason. Head coach Marc Trestman said Friday that he’s not concerned about it, they just need to clean it up as it appears to be just one player making a mistake each time. Watching the Jaguars game again confirmed that. On one play, it looked like tight end Martellus Bennett couldn’t hold his block as he pushed inside. On another play, left tackle Jermon Bushrod couldn’t get downfield fast enough and a linebacker got around the edge to make the stop in the backfield. Later, center Roberto Garza was pushed backwards and allowed the stop.
- The NFL is emphasizing illegal use of the hands in the preseason. The Bears have been called for six of those penalties (one of which was declined) in the preseason, with four of them coming on defensive linemen. With the change in technique on the defensive line — with them attacking opposing offensive linemen instead of a gap — they’ll have to be careful with their use of hands in the regular season.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for 87.7 The Game and TheGameChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.