Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan impact multiple areas of Bears 3-4 'D'


Jerrell Freeman, Danny Trevathan impact multiple areas of Bears 3-4 'D'

Not many teams would replace two of their three leading tacklers from the previous season and believe they’re improving. But the Bears are in the process of doing exactly that.

The makeover of the Bears defense that began effectively a year ago with the hirings of coach John Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio took another step on Saturday when the Bears signed former Indianapolis Colts inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman to a three-year contract. This follows by a matter of hours the addition of former Denver Broncos inside linebacker Danny Trevathan.

The signings presumably foreshadow the exits of Christian Jones and Shea McClellin as the Bears retool their 3-4 linebacker corps closer to players from that scheme rather than attempting to staff the defense with players specifically acquired for another system, which inside linebackers Jones and McClellin were.

Jones was second to rookie safety Adrian Amos on the Bears last season with 98 tackles. McClellin was third with 96, with Pernell McPhee a distant fourth at 64.

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Running the defense

McClellin primarily and Jones in his absence were tasked with handling defensive signals, assignments and positionings in the Bears’ scheme. Both Freeman and Trevathan have done precisely those duties at a demonstrably higher level.

“My greatest strength is understanding and knowing my job and understanding the defense,” Freeman said. “I'm a big studier. You may not know a lot about [Div. III] guys, but we don't get athletic scholarships. We get academic ones. Speed, being able to run around and tackle. Just a lot of things that make me who I am.”

Freeman was surprised when the Colts made no effort to re-sign him after four years with them, chalking it off to the NFL simply being a business. “It was just like a, 'good luck in free agency,'” Freeman said. He said he didn’t realize that the Colts were on the Bears’ 2016 schedule, but being informed of that on Saturday brought a healthy laugh.

In the meantime, Freeman was clear on what Fangio and Fox expect of him.

“Being a three-down linebacker,” Freeman said. “Being able to stay on the field, cover, my understanding and being able to dissect plays, just being a playmaker. Just doing what I've been doing. I guess that's plenty.”

[MORE: Bears bolster defense, agree to terms with linebacker Jerrell Freeman]

Coverage issues

Freeman and Trevathan are unique upgrades in part because they are inside linebackers with coverage skills, which neither Jones nor McClellin demonstrated. Neither has an interception in their Bears careers. Jones had 4 pass breakups last season, McClellin two. For purposes of perspective: little-used backup cornerback Alan Ball had 5, as did linebacker Jonathan Anderson who spent the first five weeks of the season on practice squad and played fewer than half the ’15 snaps that Jones and McClellin did. Reserve defensive tackle Will Sutton had four. Defensive end Willie Young had three.

Freeman is one of three NFL linebackers since 2012 to record at least eight forced fumbles and four interceptions along with Lavonte David and Thomas Davis. Freeman has 17 pass breakups in his four Indianapolis seasons, more than Jones and McClellin combined for their four years as Bears linebackers (McClellin was played at defensive end his first two years).

The Freeman and Trevathan signings combine to dramatically dial down any need to address that position, beyond on a best-player-available basis, in the draft, which is generally considered below average in 2016 at the inside-linebacker position.

Roquan Smith helps shear a sheep at Bears community event

Roquan Smith helps shear a sheep at Bears community event

Roquan Smith has more sheared sheep than tackles on his stat sheet as a pro football player.

Smith and several other Bears rookies participated in a hands-on community event at Lambs Farm in Libertyville, Illinois on Monday where he assisted farm staff with the sheep's grooming. Smith said it was a first for him despite growing up around animals. 

"It's like on the norm for me though, playing linebacker you're in the trenches," Smith said of the experience.

"Shaving a sheep, I never really envisioned myself doing something like that," Smith said via "I was around animals [growing up], but it was more so cows and goats here and there and dogs and cats. I've petted a sheep before, but never actually flipped one and shaved one."

Bears rookies got up close and personal with more than just sheep.

Smith was selected with the eighth overall pick in April's draft and will assume a starting role opposite Danny Trevathan at inside linebacker this season. Here's to hoping he can wrangle opposing ball-carriers like a sheep waiting to be sheared.

The Bears' defense is ahead of its offense, but Matt Nagy doesn't see that as a problem

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The Bears' defense is ahead of its offense, but Matt Nagy doesn't see that as a problem

Asking players about how the defense is “ahead” of the offense is a yearly right of passage during OTAs, sort of like how every baseball team has about half its players saying they’re in the best shape of their life during spring training. So that Vic Fangio’s defense is ahead of Matt Nagy’s offense right now isn’t surprising, and it's certainly not concerning. 

But Nagy is also working to install his offense right now during OTAs to build a foundation for training camp. So does the defense — the core of which is returning with plenty of experience in Fangio’s system — being ahead of the offense hurt those efforts?

“It’s actually good for us because we’re getting an experienced defense,” Nagy said. “My message to the team on the offensive side is just be patient and don’t get frustrated. They understand that they’re going to play a little bit faster than us right now. We’ll have some growing pains, but we’ll get back to square one in training camp.”

We’ll have a chance to hear from the Bears’ offensive players following Wednesday’s practice, but for now, the guys on Fangio’s defense have come away impressed with that Nagy’s offense can be. 

“The offense is a lot … just very tough,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “They’re moving well. They’re faster. They’re throwing a lot of different looks at us and that’s just Nagy’s offense. If I was a receiver I would love to play in this offense, just because you get to do so many different things and you get so many different plays. It just looks fun over there.”

“They’re moving together, and I like to see that,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “We’re not a bad defense. They’re practicing against us, so they’re getting better every day, and vice versa. It’s a daily grind. It’s going to be tough, but those guys, they got the right pieces. I like what I see out there. When somebody makes a play, they’re gone. Everybody can run over there. It’s the right fit for Mitch, it’s the right fit for the receivers, the running backs.”

Still, for all the praise above, the defense is “winning” more, at least as much as it can without the pads on. But the offense is still having some flashes, even as it collectively learns the terminology, concepts and formations used by Nagy. 

And that leads to a competitive atmosphere at Halas Hall, led by the Bears’ new head coach. 

“He’s an offensive coach and last year coach (John) Fox, I couldn’t really talk stuff to (him) because he’s a defensive coach and it’s like Nagy’s offense so if I get a pick or something, I mean, I like to talk stuff to him,” Amukamara said. “He’ll say something like ‘we’re coming at you 2-0.’ Stuff like that. That just brings out the competition and you always want that in your head coach.”