Bears

Bears camping out 2016: Bears have quantity at LB, but do they have elite quality?

Bears camping out 2016: Bears have quantity at LB, but do they have elite quality?

No team making the 2015 NFL playoffs recorded fewer than the Bears’ 35 sacks. The Bears haven’t posted more than 41 sacks in a season in nearly 30 years, and with the Bears converting to a 3-4 base defense last season, the foundation of a definitive pass rush rests squarely with their linebackers.

The Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl with a linebacker – Von Miller – as MVP. Consider that one template for what coach John Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio seek for their defense. Along that must be the mesh among a group that has upgraded talent but no two projected starters who’ve played together. Adding new starters does not automatically translate into successful cohesion.

“I think we have some better pieces to work with for sure,” Fangio said. “The one thing that will have to get honed up quickly is we are vastly new at the inside linebacker position, so the carryover from Year 1 to Year 2 is not there at that position, and that’s a critical position when you’re talking about that because those guys are kind of the quarterback of the defense.

“They’re in between everybody. As fast as those guys learn how to quarterback the defense, feel comfortable in what we’re doing and we feel comfortable with them, will determine how fast and how well we improve."

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Offseason adjustments

No position group underwent a more significant retooling than the one that is the obvious heart of the basic 3-4 and, for the Bears, also for their 4-3 sub packages. The result is a clear expectation that an area of liability in 2015 become an immediate strength for 2016, one with a stunning amount of competition.

None of the 2015 day one starters will be the same: Jared Allen and Shea McClellin are gone, Christian Jones is fighting for a roster spot, and while Pernell McPhee is projected to start, he has been down-sized after undergoing knee surgery shortly after the season.

After using free agency to re-staff both inside-linebacker spots – Jerrell Freeman from Indianapolis, Danny Trevathan from Denver – the Bears made an edge pass rusher their draft priority – Leonard Floyd from Georgia, No. 9 overall.

“He’s got tremendous athleticism; we talked about that even in the draft process,” Fox said. “He’s very smart, has played a lot of different positions, understands the game, and he has the skill set to do all parts of his job, both in coverage and as far as rush.”

That would be your basic definition of “linebacker.”

The additions, along with both Lamarr Houston and Willie Young projected to be fully ready for camp instead of easing back from leg injuries as they were this time last year, give the Bears five proven veterans and Floyd and fourth-round pick Nick Kwiatkowski for purposes of rotation, depth and special teams.

Depth-charting

Inside LBs: Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan

Outside LBs: Lamarr Houston, Pernell McPhee

The mix: Willie Young, Leonard Floyd, Sam Acho, Christian Jones, Nick Kwiatkowski, Lamin Barrow, Jonathan Anderson, John Timu, Jarrett Grace

[RELATED: Changes loom as Bears on final approach to training camp]

Three questions camp will begin to answer…

— Whether the Bears can mount a true pass rush from the position core most tasked with delivering one. They have a number of solid rush-linebackers; they have not shown an elite talent, that one dominant rusher that keys a defense and can blow up an offense. Houston (eight sacks), Young (6.5) and McPhee (six) were respectable, particularly given Houston and Young coming off injuries. But the Bears finished with just 35 sacks and need more threat from their rush-linebackers collectively or individually.

“There’s a lot of good rushers there, a lot of good guys who can do a lot of different things,” said right tackle Bobby Massie after facing the group and its constantly changing looks. “So there’s a good variety pack of pass rushers.”

— Whether Floyd is able to add a power component to his speed-based game. Floyd declared this a priority for himself: “It definitely gives me another move to go to when my speed is not working. It will definitely help me grow as an edge rusher.”

— What combination of talents will mesh optimally. Houston, McPhee and the other vets have established skills but the search for impact, particularly in rush lanes, will necessitate mix-and-match’es.

Why Leonard Floyd is the key to the Bears' defensive success

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USA Today Sports Images

Why Leonard Floyd is the key to the Bears' defensive success

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — For all the attention heaped on Roquan Smith in the last 48 hours, he’s not the most important player to determining the success of the Bears’ defense in 2018. 

Rightly, the Bears feel good about their depth at inside linebacker, especially now that the No. 8 overall pick is in the mix. Smith, Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski being at the top of the depth chart is solid at worst; John Timu is entering fourth year in Vic Fangio’s defense, and rookie Joel Iyiegbuniwe has some promise. 

This isn’t to diminish the importance of Smith, who represents the biggest (and, arguably, only major) addition to the Bears’ defense made in the 2018 offseason. But if you’re looking for the guy whose performance will be the most critical to the success of this defense, look toward the last Georgia product the Bears took with a top-10 pick. 

Given the upside of Leonard Floyd and where the Bears stand at outside linebacker three and a half weeks before the start of the regular season, that’s your guy. And over the last few weeks, Floyd has practiced and played better and better, providing an encouraging sign for a guy the Bears are betting big on this year. 

“He’s feeling more comfortable,” Trevathan said. “So I’m just happy with the direction he’s heading. It’s just going to make our defense better with Flo flying around.”

The Bears have seen flashes from Floyd in the past, but he’s yet to put together much in the way of consistency when it comes to affecting the quarterback. His 11 1/2 sacks in 1,118 career snaps come out to an average of one sack every, roughly, 102 snaps in 22 career games. For a guy that’s averaged 51 snaps per game his first two years in the league, that averages out to about one sack every two games. 

If you factor in quarterback hurries, of which he has 21 in two years, Floyd is affecting the quarterback once every 34 snaps. Pernell McPhee, who the Bears released earlier this year, averaged a sack or a hurry once every 24 snaps, abeit in a small sample size. Von Miller, who Floyd is sharing practice fields with this week, averaged a hurry or sack once every 26 snaps in the last two years over 1,828 snaps. 

These numbers don’t factor in a lot of things, like coverage assignments or flat-out statistical misses of hurries (for instance, Floyd wasn’t credited with a hurry in last week’s preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals, despite his pressure on quarterback Andy Dalton forcing a throw Kyle Fuller picked off and ran back for a touchdown). But the overall point is this: The Bears need Floyd to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and be that double-digit-sack guy they envisioned when drafting him two years ago. 

Floyd isn’t putting that pressure on himself, though, and stuck to the usual one-day-at-a-time answer when asked how he achieves better consistency and what his goals are for the season. 

“Going out and practicing and just going as hard as you can, fixing your corrections and just continuing to be better every day,” Floyd said. 

If Floyd was a little reserved about his own expectations for the season, his teammates are more than willing to do the talking for him. 

“Even if he’s not flashy in the way you would want to see your outside linebacker flashing, he’s scaring offenses, you know what I’m saying?” defensive end Akiem Hicks, who tabbed Floyd as a Pro Bowl favorite as early as April, said. “So he already put that intimidation factor in there, and then to come up with the plays on top of that, the sky’s the limit for that guy. You just look at the body of work that he’s had as far as putting it in the past couple years, you’re waiting for that moment where he just takes over the league, and I think it’s this year.”

“He’s more disruptive,” Trevathan said. “I see a sense of him trying to create more big plays. Instead of just a sack, more to it. Sack/caused fumble. Getting the quarterback’s (vision). He’s guarding, dropping back. He’s doing everything that Flo is supposed to do even better now.”

Another positive point in Floyd’s favor is outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley seeing him talking more in meetings and growing more comfortable with his role and position on this defense. While Floyd isn’t going to be a vocal leader in that room — that role is ably filled by Sam Acho — his teammates are starting to notice his performances in practice. 

“I think our guys know that Leonard can do so many things for us,” Staley said. “They lean on him by his example — how he is in the practice field, how he is in the meetings. He's been doing a good job.”

But the most important point on Floyd may be this: The Bears bet big on him, and are betting big on him, based on how they addressed outside linebacker in the offseason. Aaron Lynch was brought in on a one-year, prove-it deal, but the injury issues that dogged him in San Francisco have returned during training camp (he’s only participated in one practice due to a hamstring injury). Acho was re-signed to a two-year deal, rewarding him for the stable play he’s provided over the last few years, but he’s only recorded four sacks in 47 games with the Bears. Ryan Pace waited until the sixth round before drafting an edge rusher, giving a flier to Kylie Fitts. Isaiah Irving, an undrafted rookie from a year ago, has flashed in a few preseason games dating back to last year but didn't record a sack in his 41 snaps on defense in 2017. 

Those moves screamed one thing: The Bears believe in Floyd, and believe if he has the kind of season they think he can have, they didn’t need a massive addition to their group of edge rushers. That doesn’t mean Pace won’t make a move for an edge rusher before or after cut-down day in September, but unless he were to pay an exorbitant price to trade for Khalil Mack, whoever is brought it won’t be viewed as the team’s No. 1 edge rushing option. 

That would be Floyd, who’s shown in the last few weeks that he’s past his season-ending knee injury from 2017. It’s now on the third-year player to make that leap in production and play a major role in the success of a Bears’ defense that, other than Smith, largely stood pat this spring. 

Under Center Podcast: Takeaways from the Bears’ joint practice in Denver

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AP

Under Center Podcast: Takeaways from the Bears’ joint practice in Denver

JJ Stankevitz and The Athletic’s Kevin Fishbain break down the Bears’ joint practice with the Denver Broncos on Wednesday, including how Roquan Smith looked, some encouraging signs for the offense and an enjoyable sequence of pass-rushing drills involving Von Miller.

Listen to the full Under Center Podcast right here: