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."
[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]
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.
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
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.