Fresh mentors point to fast turnaround for Bears' defense


Fresh mentors point to fast turnaround for Bears' defense

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.

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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.

[RELATED: Bears hoping Sam Acho becomes a 'smart' signing]

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.

[RELATED: Shea McClellin returning to roots in new Bears' 3-4 scheme]

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.”

Bears notes: Was Trey Burton’s penalty justified?

Bears notes: Was Trey Burton’s penalty justified?

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — In a game full of pivotal moments, one seemed to irk the Bears in particular following Sunday’s 31-28 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium.

Driving on the Dolphins three-yard line, the Bears lined up in a T formation with Jordan Howard, Trey Burton and Tarik Cohen lined up left to right in the backfield behind Mitch Trubisky, who was under center. Burton motioned out of the backfield and to the right, and ran his route into linebacker Kiko Alonso.

Trubisky threw a short pass to a wide open Cohen for a touchdown, with Alonso late getting to the running back after being hit by Burton. But that score was taken off the board for offensive pass interference, with officials ruling what Burton did amounted to an illegal pick play.

“Trey did everything I asked him to do,” Matt Nagy said, sharply.

On the next play, Trubisky forced a pass into double coverage in the end zone, which was easily picked off by Dolphins safety T.J. McDonald. Miami turned that interception into eight points on Albert Wilson’s 43-yard touchdown and an ensuing two-point conversion.

The way Burton understood the rule was that offensive pass interference was only assessed on a pick play if he intentionally ran into a defender without running a true route. That’s what Burton felt he did; the officiating crew disagreed.

“I thought I ran a route and the guy ran into me,” Burton said. “I thought they changed the rule this year or last year — if you run the route, it doesn’t matter if you pick the guy or not, you’re good. Obviously they called it.”

A Rough Return

The conversations surrounding the Bears Sunday into Monday would be awfully different had a number of things happened — Trubisky doesn’t throw that interception, the Bears’ defense gets a stop, Tarik Cohen doesn’t fumble near midfield, etc. In that same group: If Cody Parkey hits what would’ve been a game-winning 53-yard field goal in overtime.

Parkey, instead, missed that kick wide right. His career long is 54 yards, which he hit last year while with the Miami Dolphins (and that was a game-winner with about a minute left against the Los Angeles Chargers).

“I had the distance, I just didn’t kick it straight enough, bottom line,” Parkey said. “But you’ve got to move on. I’ve made game winners, I’ve missed game winners. As long as I keep playing, I’m just going to keep trying to kick my best.

“… I control what I can control, and unfortunately I missed a field goal. I’d like to have that one back, but it is what it is and I’m just going to focus on the next game. That’s all I can do.”

For an improving Bears offense vs. Dolphins, a day of maddening extremes

For an improving Bears offense vs. Dolphins, a day of maddening extremes

Their points production in the 31-28 overtime loss to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday marked the fourth time in five games under coach Matt Nagy that the Bears have scored 23 or more points. All of the 28 were heaped on the Dolphins by the offense, which churned for 467 yards one game after amassing 483 and 48 points against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But the Bears did in fact lose, and not all of the reasons can be laid at the feet of the defense. Not nearly all of them.

In great position to put the game virtually out of reach for the struggling Dolphins, the Bears offense failed. The yardage total gave the Bears consecutive 400-yard games for the first time since games 14-15 in 2016, and well could have represented a statement that the offense of Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich was indeed hitting a potent stride.

It may be. But a combination of troubling factors gave Sunday’s output a hollow ring.

Against the Dolphins, 149 of the yards came on possessions ending in turnovers, including an interception thrown by quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and fumble by running back Jordan Howard both occurring in the red zone with points well within reach.

The offense hurt itself with a handful of pre-snap penalties, and the overarching sense is that the belief in Nagy and the overall offense is growing amid mistakes that clearly rest with players themselves.

“For sure, 100 percent trust in Coach Nagy and what he believes is best for this team,” Trubisky said. “What he believes is what I believe is best for this team. Whatever he calls, we're going to run it to the best of our ability. We put ourselves in a great chance, and I have faith in our guys that next time we get the opportunity we make it.”

Opportunities taken and opportunities missed

For Trubisky, the linchpin of the evolving offense, it was a day of extremes.

His production (316 yards) gave him consecutive 300-yard games for the first time in his 17-game career. His passer rating (122.5) was the seond-highest of his career, behind only the stratospheric 154.6 of the Tampa Bay game. His three TD passes are second only to his six against the Buccaneers. Trubisky’s yardage outputs this season are pointing in a decidedly upward arc: 171 at Green Bay, followed by 200-220-354-316.

But decision-making proved costly at tipping points against the Dolphins. From the Miami 13 with a 21-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, and holding a chance to create potentially decisive breathing room on the scoreboard, Trubisky forced a throw toward tight end Ben Braunecker, who was double-covered in the Miami end zone. The ball was intercepted by safety T.J. McDonald, and the Dolphins went from the touchback to a touchdown and subsequent game-tying two-point conversion.

“I just thought the safety went with the ‘over’ route,” Trubisky said. “He made a good play. I lost him when I was stepping up [in the pocket], and I forced one in the red zone when I shouldn't have… . I forced it and I put my team in a bad position, and I shouldn't have thrown that pass.”

The second-year quarterback started poorly, with an overthrow of a wide-open Anthony Miller on the third play from scrimmage, resulting in a three-and-out and a concerning start for what would be only scoreless Bears first half this season. A failed fourth-and-2 conversion gave Miami the football at its 41 later in the quarter.

Trubisky badly overthrew an open Miller in the second quarter, creating a third-and-long on which the Dolphins broke down his protection for a second sack in the span of just 11 plays. After a 47-yard completion to Taylor Gabriel, Trubisky threw an checkdown pass nowhere near running back Jordan Howard.

Fatigue factor overlooked?

Running back Tarik Cohen totaled 121 yards for the second straight game and the second time in his career. For the second straight week Cohen led or co-led the Bears with seven pass receptions.

But the last of the seven came with a disastrous finish. Cohen was hit by Miami linebacker Kiko Alonso after taking a swing pass and picking up 11 yards, fumbled and had the ball recovered by cornerback Xavien Howard at the Chicago 45. The defense did manage a stop, leading to the overtime, but the result was devastating.

“Personally for me, it’s [frustrating] because I know I took my team out of position to win the game late in the ball game,’ Cohen said. “So personally, that’s frustrating for me… . I feel like I had an opportunity to get ourselves down in scoring position. I let fatigue get the best of me, and I forgot about the fundamentals.”

That Cohen mentioned “fatigue” is perhaps noteworthy. A question was raised to Helfrich last week as to whether there was an optimal or max number of snaps for the diminutive Cohen, who had five carries and was targeted nine times – not including one punt return and plays on which he ran pass routes but was not thrown to in the south Florida heat.

“It was hot,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. “It was hot out there.”

Weapons rising

Last offseason and millions in contracts were spent upgrading offensive weaponry. The investments produced in Miami.

Touchdown passes were caught by wide receivers Anthony Miller (drafted) and Allen Robinson (free agent) plus tight end Trey Burton (free agent). Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (free agent) caught the five passes thrown to him for a team-high 110 yards, his second straight 100-yard game after none in his previous four NFL seasons.

Five different players posted plays of 20 yards or longer, including pass plays of 54 and 47 yards by Gabriel and a run of 21 yards and reception of 59 yards by Cohen.

Uncharacteristically for the normally fast-starting Bears offense, the group followed the scoreless first half with 21 points in the third quarter and 343 yards of combined offense in the second half and overtime.

“We came out with more energy and had the attitude that we were going to go down and score the ball,” Trubisky said, “and we played a lot better the second half.”