During the owners meetings this Spring in Arizona, John Fox was asked how long it would take to turn around a Bears defense that was historically bad for the past two years. The new Bears coach had faced the same question recently from the board of directors, perhaps an indication of how fed up the board had become with the miserable state of affairs in a traditional Bears strength.
Fox prefers understating and over-producing rather than premature progress prognostications but did allow, “I think it will be sooner than later.”
Expect it to be sooner.
The Bears will have available to them the built-in excuse of a complete defensive-scheme makeover and needing time to staff up appropriately for a 3-4 defense. The surprise will be if they need to use it.
[NBC SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]
The excuse can be that they lack 3-4 personnel. A year ago, they did. But GM Ryan Pace has spent the offseason signing and drafting personnel to staff a front seven completely different from the ones assembled by Phil Emery.
Indeed, even without Ray McDonald, who was a priority signing to be one of the starters anchoring the defensive line, the Bears arguably are better equipped to run the intended 3-4 of 2015 than they were to operate the 4-3 of the past two seasons. They’re certainly better coached.
They may begin 2015 with Shea McClellin or Jeremiah Ratliff as the only starters from the 2014 front seven to start 2015. Even that is far from guaranteed, and both McClellin and Ratliff would be in completely different positions from their previous assignments.
Myriad teams switching to 3-4 schemes have shown immediate improvements, without a settling-in year. The Bears should be another one of those.
For one thing, the Bears should benefit from a bit of a “sneak-up” factor; they’ll be running a defense that Green Bay, Arizona and Seattle (the first three opponents) haven’t ever seen them operate.
And even if teams have seen some film on the 3-4 Bears, “you can’t really scheme [coordinator Vic Fangio’s] defense because you really don’t know what guy is coming,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee, the key first free-agent target in the makeover. “He’s got us playing where you don’t know who’s rushing, who’s dropping.
“In Baltimore you always knew, ‘Suggs is coming’ or ‘I’m coming or dropping.’ It’s just different and more creative.”
A whole greater than the sum of the parts?
But is there really a sneak-up factor? Well, the first time the Packers and Brett Favre saw Lovie Smith’s new Bears defense (2004), they scored just 10 points and lost, the first time with that few points vs. Chicago since Favre took over in 1992. The offense of Marc Trestman may have eventually stagnated, but the Bears won their first three games under him in 2013 and averaged 32 points for their first four Trestman games. After that...
Curiously perhaps, the Bears are likely to show a greater jump in performance changing their scheme entirely than they did the last couple of times they changed coaches but stayed with the basic overall system.
Reason: The scheme may be new to the Bears but it is not new to the major additions on defense, including outside linebackers McPhee and Sam Acho. The result is more than just Fangio coaching.
“I’ve got a couple of the young guys who, every day, I’ll say, ‘If you need help, or need help with the playbook, if I can help, I will,’” McPhee said.
The Lovie Smith Bears benefited from the de facto on-field coaching of Brian Urlacher. The current Bears defense is not starting from scratch because of mentors in the midst.
“That’s kind of what I’ve been doing the last four years,” former Arizona Cardinal Acho said. “It just is a good fit.”
For perspective: Changing 4-3’s
In fact, the transition from the dysfunctional hybrid 4-3 of last season to a 3-4 this year may be less of a change than the successful one brought in a decade ago, one that even stayed within the 4-3 family tree.
When Lovie Smith brought in his version of a 4-3 in 2004, it was dramatically different from the one practiced by Dick Jauron and Greg Blache. The latters ran a two-gap system with a massive front four keeping blockers off Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. Smith and coordinator Ron Rivera wanted a one-gap scheme based on speed and disruption from a front four averaging more than 30 fewer pounds per man.
Under Smith’s system, the Bears improved from 22nd in points allowed (21.6) in 2003 to 13th (20.7) in 2004. But they gave up nearly 30 more yards per game in 2004 before becoming one of the NFL’s elite defenses the following couple of seasons.
The Bears stayed with the general 4-3 in 2013-14 under Mel Tucker but dropped to epic poor levels.
Successful 3-4 morph’ings
The New England Patriots went back to a 4-3 under Bill Belichick and won a Super Bowl, defeating the Seattle Seahawks, another 4-3 team.
In sharp contrast with the Bears’ suspect history with change are the improvement spikes enjoyed by teams abandoning 4-3’s and tilting toward 3-4 principles:
The Arizona Cardinals abandoned the 4-3 run by then-coordinator Ray Horton and took up the 3-4 of Todd Bowles under coach Bruce Arians. With some key players still in place (Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett), the Cardinals leaped from 17th in points and 12th in yardage allowed into the top 10 in both categories.
When Dom Capers got to Green Bay in 2009, the Packers were a 4-3 team of long standing. Capers entirely retooled the defense, which went from 22nd in points allowed (23.8) to seventh (18.6). More striking, the 20th-ranked yardage defense jumped to No. 2.
The Packers had the obvious draft hits with No. 1 picks of B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews. But they also had in place linebackers Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk, as well as defensive linemen Cullen Jenkins, Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett, all of whom transitioned seamlessly to a 3-4. Raji did not crack the No. 1 line, starting just one game in 2009.
The Indianapolis Colts changed to a 3-4 when Chuck Pagano took over from Jim Caldwell in 2012. The improvement was modest, but was noteworthy in that veteran 4-3 ends Dwight Freeney (age 32) and Robert Mathis (31) took their hands off the ground and functioned effectively as 3-4 edge rushers at relatively late points in their careers (see: Allen, Jared).
Ultimately, however, neither Fox nor Fangio buy into there being cataclysmic differences in schemes. The same basics still apply and time in the system doesn’t strike them as critical.
“Football is football,” Fangio said. “3-4, 4-3, it’s still seven guys up front, it’s just how you organize it and the mechanics of it. So I don’t think the experience is a big thing. A defensive lineman playing the 3-technique in our defense is very similar to what they do in a 4-3. So experience helps but it’s not the ultimate.”