There are no unimportant positions on a football field, regardless of unit. One – quarterback – may be more important, but a glaring weakness elsewhere on offense can compromise that individual. An opponent’s return team absolutely will find the one incompetent member of the coverage unit. A defensive back is too often only as good as what goes on in front of him, and vice versa.
(Any doubts, see: Bears, Chicago; 2014).
Three overarching issues will in large part determine the success of the 2015 Bears, and those will be addressed subsequently by CSNChicago.com. But four specific positions warrant close attention when training camp opens later this month and on through the preseason:
When the Bears signed Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young last offseason, the plan was to add a win-now edge pass rush out of a 4-3 scheme. Now the scheme is changed, Houston and Young have yet to practice following season-ending injuries last season, and Allen’s role or spot on the depth chart is still forming.
But the real question at the position lies at the end positions in the 3-4 scheme, spots that need to staffed by players closer in size and role to defensive tackles, not the speed rushers lined up outside offensive tackles.
The Bears used a No. 2 pick on Eddie Goldman to staff nose tackle, and they have other options at that spot. What they don’t have are the fits like coordinator Vic Fangio had in San Francisco with Justin Smith (285 pounds) and Ray Collins. Ego Ferguson and Jeremiah Ratliff have been with the No. 1 unit but it is a critical position for the run defense that needs to be stout if Fangio is to have chances to display the creativity that has established him as one of the NFL’s elite coordinators.
“Your heart and soul in any defense, and the 3-4 is no different, the three down linemen to me are the heart and soul of the defense,” Fangio said. “If they're getting pushed around, it doesn't matter what you're in; we're in trouble.”
OL right side
The location of Kyle Long has been an obvious story line through the offseason, and the two-time Pro Bowl lineman has been at both guard and tackle through minicamps and OTA’s. But more is involved than just Long.
Left tackle Jermon Bushrod sat out practices in June, as did right tackle Jordan Mills, the starter at right tackle before a troublesome foot injury week 17 of 2013. The Bears signed guard Vladimir Ducasse from the Minnesota Vikings; the decision on Long can be assumed to factor in whether Ducasse is a better guard than Mills is a tackle.
Left tackle is the marquis position from the standpoint of pass protection to the quarterback’s blind side. But the majority of Hall of Fame defensive ends were left ends, meaning the ones who were bearing down right where the quarterback can see any protection breakdown.
The Bears are making changes to their blocking schemes; those typically always happen anyway with a coaching change. But sorting out the blocking where it’s most visible to quarterback Jay Cutler has to happen, and happen quickly.
“I look at tackles, while they have to be physical, I look at them as ‘skill’ guys,” said line coach Dave Magazu. “They better be able to protect the passer first, and maybe be a run blocker second."
Special teams at times over the past two years had the appearance and feel of afterthoughts. Coordinator Joe DeCamillis was forced to deal with constantly changing personnel, rarely working with starting defensive players or top specialists in the coverage arts.
The result was that units that once ranked annually among the NFL’s best slipped into mediocrity. Coach John Fox hired Jeff Rodgers as special-teams coordinator with the Denver Broncos and was able to bring Rodgers to the Bears staff.
“There’s a lot of things to like about guys that make tackles or guys that did a good job with blocks or if they were penalty type guys,” Rodgers said. “You just try to identify those things, educate them on what we’re trying to do and move forward.”
So much attention has been on the outside linebackers because of the pass-rush component, that the inside two have been overlooked. They shouldn’t be.
Fangio’s top-10 defenses in San Francisco got sacks from Aldon and Justin Smith. But they had All-Pro’s NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis as their 245-pound inside linebackers.
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The Bears have nothing approaching the Bowman-Willis tandem; no team does. And what they do have are Christian Jones and Shea McClellin lining up as the first unit, plus Mason Foster from Tampa Bay and potentially Jonathan Bostic coming off a back injury.
None of the four have ever started at inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense at the NFL level. Not that they’re intimidated by the challenge, but...
“I feel comfortable,” McClellin said as the offseason practices wrapped up. “I haven't played inside for a long time, but it's starting to come back to me, the instincts to play in there are coming back. Personally I'm feeling good… .It's not where we want to be, but we'll continue to build.”