Bears

Ryan Pace’s history could point Bears toward WR at No. 7

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Ryan Pace’s history could point Bears toward WR at No. 7

Bears general manager Ryan Pace was clear on one point of franchise philosophy:

“I don’t think you can have enough good pass rushers,” he said during the NFL owners meetings. “I think Seattle is an example of that. So if the right pass rusher is there in the first round, we’ll take that.”

What Pace, himself a former college defensive end, has done in his first pass through free agency as GM has been eminently consistent with his beliefs, particularly with a defense switching to a rush-focused 3-4 scheme.

But the growing question is whether or not there in fact is an “enough,” and whether Pace and coach John Fox are preparing to strike in a direction breaking from their respective experiences in New Orleans (Pace) and Denver/Carolina/New York Giants (Fox).

That looming other “direction” is wide receiver.

[MORE: Bears say goodbye to Charles Tillman as he reunites with Ron Rivera in Carolina]

It’s both a matter of what Pace has done — cut Brandon Marshall, sign multiple pass-rush options in free agency — and what he hasn’t done — pursue a top starter-grade wideout…yet.

And there are enough trace elements of elite-receiver targeting in Pace’s background to form more than idle musing that he would go there.

Securing

Both Pace and Fox come from organizations with draft traditions deeply rooted on defense. Fox was with the New York Giants when GM’s George Young and Ernie Accorsi also went for running backs high in drafts, which Fox continued when he went to Carolina.

But consider: Pace was hired in 2001 as a Saints assistant. New Orleans selected Donte’ Stallworth with the 13th pick of the 2002 draft, Devery Henderson in the 2004 second round, Robert Meacham 27th in 2007, and Brandon Cooks with the 20th in 2014.

All wide receivers.

The Denver Broncos chose defensive players with all four of their first picks in Fox’s tenure there. And Carolina’s drafts for Fox were defense-oriented at the top.

But the New York Giants used the No. 7 pick in 1997, Fox’s first year as Giants defensive coordinator, on Florida wideout Ike Hilliard. Last year, Fox’s last in Denver, the Broncos took wideout Cody Latimer in the second round.

Past choices in drafts don’t definitively show what GMs and coaches will do in the present or future. But the patterns that Fox and Pace witnessed and were part of represent some of their experiences on how successful franchises built themselves. All of which make the trails of breadcrumbs worth studying.

Looking for the 'enough'

Pace has been good to his and Fox’s words on pass rushers in free agency. Teams frequently address what they consider their primary needs in free agency, thus giving themselves options in the draft for best-available-athletes and/or a specific job (quarterback). Pace, Fox and the Bears went aggressively after rush-linebackers but notably did not address a gaping void at wide receiver created with the release of Marshall.

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That solution may lie in the draft, with the Bears among those hosting a visit by West Virginia wideout Kevin White earlier this month and expected to visit with Alabama’s Amari Cooper. Both are possessed of speed found nowhere on the Bears’ current wide receiver depth chart.

Already stocking pass rushers

Coincidentally, former GM Phil Emery’s signature signings in 2014 were defensive ends for a 4-3: Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young. Pace has waded into his own first free agency with signings targeting pass rushers, but for a 3-4.

Pace’s acquisitions project to six new starters on defense: two-thirds of the defensive line (Jarvis Jenkins, Ray McDonald), three-fourths of the linebackers (Sam Acho, Mason Foster, Pernell McPhee) and half of the safeties (Antrel Rolle).

The cluster of linebacker transactions, combined with the stated plan to move Lamarr Houston from end back to outside linebacker, spotlighted pass rushers: Acho, McPhee, plus Houston. Houston’s return from a torn ACL makes him less than a given. But the Bears also have Allen, David Bass and Young as competition for edge-rusher spots, in addition to Jonathan Bostic and Shea McClellin competing for roster spots on the inside.

Complicating the equation (and that is in fact one of ideas behind the switch to a 3-4: becoming complicated) is that both Acho and McPhee are mobile and have rushed from inside starting points.

NFC North standings: Bears’ division lead on life support after loss to Dolphins

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USA TODAY

NFC North standings: Bears’ division lead on life support after loss to Dolphins

A tie is all that separates the Bears from the rest of the NFC North division. Chicago’s Week 6 loss to the Miami Dolphins dropped the team to 3-2, which just barely leaves them in first place.

Because the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings tied in Week 2, they sit just behind the Bears at 3-2-1 in the division. The Week 5 bye week also kept Chicago a little bit ahead, but they’re only a game away from dropping down to third.

They still control their own destiny, but Matt Nagy will need an upset win over the New England Patriots on Sunday to maintain their leading position. The Packers are on a bye week, so they would assume first place if the Bears lose.

The Vikings take on the New York Jets for a chance to take sole possession of the NFC North crown, but Chicago is guaranteed to stay ahead of the Detroit Lions, who also have a bye week.

These early season losses are tough on a Bears team trying to grow a division lead before they take on their NFC North foes midseason. The bigger cushion they can build now, the more wiggle room they’ll have when they face the Lions, Vikings and Lions back-to-back-to-back in November.

Film review: Albert Wilson's 75-yard TD shows how Sunday was an aberration for the Bears' defense

Film review: Albert Wilson's 75-yard TD shows how Sunday was an aberration for the Bears' defense

(For a bonus film review, check out the video above of Akiem Hicks' forced fumble on the one-yard line)

When Eddie Jackson didn’t stay on top shoulder of Randall Cobb in the fourth quarter of the Bears’ season opener, there was a clear coaching point from that 75-yard backbreaking touchdown. The Bears’ defensive mantra the week after was to focus on “plastering” receivers, which this defense did a good job of over the next three weeks. 

There surely are coaching points leveled by Vic Fangio and his assistants after the Bears were carved up by Brock Osweiler and the Miami Dolphins in Sunday’s 31-28 loss in Miami. But maybe the over-arching though here is this: The Bears didn’t, during the off week, go from being one of the league’s more sure-handed tackling teams to one of the worst. 

A defense that swarmed to the ball over the first four weeks looked a step slow and frequently out of position on Sunday. The more likely explanation for that development isn’t the plot to Space Jam 3, where a group of cartoon aliens steal the athletic power of an entire defense to use for their own. More likely, it was the heat in south Florida that sapped this team’s energy over the course of a long afternoon.

In this week’s film breakdown, we’re going to look at Albert Wilson’s 75-yard touchdown, which was wildly uncharacteristic of this defense. 

Image 1: the Bears are in nickel man coverage with Wilson (red circle) lined up in the slot across from Bryce Callahan. Danny Amendola goes in motion to the boundary (green arrow), with Danny Trevathan (green arrow) following him, though safety Adrian Amos will be the guy covering the Dolphins receiver. Akiem Hicks and Jonathan Bullard are the two down linemen in the interior, with Leonard Floyd rushing from the left and Khalil Mack from the right. 

Image 2: Mack is chipped by tight end Nick O’Leary (yellow circle), with Roquan Smith (yellow arrow) responsible or covering him. Trevathan (green circle) is in space with Amos (blue circle) picking up Amendola. With Mack chipped, the Bears have three pass rushers to go against five offensive linemen. 

Image 3: There’s about 10 yards of space between Mack and Osweiler (yellow arrow) after Mack comes free of O’Leary’s chip. Trevathan (green circle) is in a good position here, with Amos (blue arrow) closing on Amendola. Wilson works into space ahead of Callahan (red arrow), while both Dolphins outside pass-catchers run go routes to clear cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Kevin Toliver II out of the play. 

Image 4: First, the white circle — Hicks had his helmet ripped off, with right tackle Jesse Davis the apparent culprit. He still manages a good pass rush against a double team that could’ve hit home, or forced Osweiler to Mack (who’s about five yards from Osweiler when the ball is released) or Floyd, had the play extended longer. Meanwhile, when the ball is released, Callahan (red arrow) and Trevathan (green arrow) are in good position to bring down Wilson, while Amos (blue arrow) is there for help if Wilson were to turn upfield to the far sideline. 

Image 5: Wilson catches the ball and goes to the far sideline, away from Callahan (red arrow) and toward Trevathan (green arrow). After O’Leary and Smith engaged, the rookie linebacker is the farthest back from the play of these three when the ball is caught. 

Image 6: Trevathan (green arrow) seems to over-commit, giving Wilson a lane toward the boundary to cut upfield. 

Image 7: Amos (blue arrow) still has a chance to bring down Wilson short of the sticks.

Image 8: Amos misses the tackle, and Trevathan is blocked by O’Leary. That leaves Jackson (yellow arrow) as the last guy who can stop Wilson from breaking this play open. 

Image 9: In missing the tackle, Amos tripped Wilson a bit, which Jackson admitted threw him off (“but that’s not an excuse for it,” he added). Wilson re-gains his balance, cuts inside, and Jackson whiffs on the tackle. 

“Probably just try to shoot my shot on the tackle instead of just guessing, just probably should have shot my shot,” Jackson said of what he felt he should’ve done differently. 

Wilson goes to the house, and the Dolphins tie the game one play after the Bears took the lead. The last image here is Wilson’s route chart from NFL Next Gen Stats, which shows just how much running he did after the catch on that play — yardage-wise, it was 71 yards, but by distance it was much further. 

“We talked about how many tackles we missed,” Jackson said. “Some of that could have really changed the momentum of the game if we would have made some of those tackles. Unfortunately, two of them resulted in big play touchdowns.”

No members of the Bears defense were willing to use the heat as an excuse, instead opting for thumb-pointing instead of blaming teammates, coaches or the sun. But there’s a good chance we look back at Week 6 in Week 10 or 11 and can say with some confidence that the Bears beat themselves more than the Dolphins did, and it’s something that hasn’t happened since. 

“We know we made mistakes, that don’t kill our confidence,” Jackson said. “That don’t kill our swagger. We know what we gotta do, we know what we gotta correct. So we come in here, we’re going to play Chicago Bears football that we’re used to playing.”