Bears lose the substitution battle vs. Rodgers, Packers


Bears lose the substitution battle vs. Rodgers, Packers

When John Fox detailed some of the underpinnings in the Bears’ thinking behind changing to a 3-4 defensive scheme, one major underlying question was whether the Bears in fact had the quality and quantity of players needed to play a 3-4, coming from decades of a 4-3 scheme.

A more subtle but no less concerning question surfaced in the Bears’ 31-23 loss on Sunday to the Green Bay Packers. Now the question might be whether the Bears have what they need to run a 4-3, or at least one vital iteration of it.

The Packers schemed via personnel to have the Bears rarely in 3-4, instead using three wide receivers and packages that meant the Bears were forced to answer with nickel personnel. That meant a traditional front-four look, with two tackles inside and long-time 4-3 end Jared Allen in his old spot at the right edge, and Pernell McPhee, signed to be a linchpin as a 3-4 linebacker, effectively a defensive end.

Two problems:

One is that the situation takes away some of one of the major principles of the 3-4, its mystery on which of four linebackers will be blitzing. Instead of McPhee operating in places to create uncertainty in the offense, the Packers knew exactly where McPhee and Allen would be and what they would be doing.

The second, bigger problem is that the Bears were not good enough in that “sub” package to seriously threaten Aaron Rodgers. The Bears registered not a single sack or even a hit on Rodgers; and when they did get close enough to flush him, they’d lost contain and Rodgers both extended pass plays and ran himself.

[MORE: D-line couldn't get a finger on Aaron Rodgers]

Two of Green Bay’s 10 longest plays for the game were Rodgers scrambles, for 15 ad 12 yards, and doesn’t include a 17-yard run that was nullified by a holding penalty.

The reality is, however, as Fox has said, as much as 70 percent of the time a defense is in some nickel variation. Meaning: The Bears may want to play 3-4, but a skilled offense like the Packers’ can simply dictate what the Bears play.

“Well, it is matchups,” Fox said. “So if they put three wideouts out there, I don’t know if it’s a great matchup to put a 290-pound linebacker [McPhee] on him. So they do dictate that. I think that’s why you see more head coaches on the offensive side calling plays because offense does dictate the tempo of the game as well as the personnel substitutions and how you match up.”

The situation is not unique, or new. And more than a few great defensive coaches have been victimized or forced to make that kind of adjustment. And when they don’t...

Classic situation: Buddy Ryan stubbornly left Wilber Marshall in his ’85 Bears defense going against the Miami Dolphins, and it did not take Dan Marino too many snaps to see Marshall left in coverage of Nat Moore. Marshall was fast, but not on Moore’s level. Ryan and Mike Ditka came to blows in the locker room at halftime of that game, the only one the ’85 Bears lost, in part because of the Marshall-Moore situation.

[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

The Packers exacerbated the situation with the speed of their execution.

“You can’t sub unless the clock is stopped,” Fox said. “They can go to the line real fast and snap the ball if you’re trying to sub. That’s not even trying to match up, just trying to put new guys in. In that setting you can’t do that.”

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.