When the Bears drafted Leonard Floyd out of Georgia, one of the attractions was that he could do and had experience doing so many things, the perfect template for what the Bears want from an outside linebacker in their 3-4 defensive scheme. But sometimes the asset of versatility has brought with it a small curse.
Because he can do a lot, he’s being asked to do a lot, meaning not only is he tasked with in-depth study of opponents he’s seeing for the first time in life; he’s also in the midst of learning his own defense for the first time.
That latter element has been the critical key to Floyd’s acceleration, literally and figuratively, onto the NFL stage.
“I’ve been talking to him, letting him know, that just as much as you study the opponent, you have to study our playbook because you get asked to do so much,” said linebacker Pernell McPhee, increasingly paired opposite Floyd in the Bears’ base 3-4. “So you’ve got to know what everybody’s doing, where your help is, when you’re dropping. I think he’s gotten used to that, studying and playing faster."
Floyd is indeed playing faster, exploding over the past three games for 10 tackles (7 of them solo), 4 tackles for loss, a pass deflection and a strip-sack to force an Aaron Rodgers fumble which Floyd recovered in the Green Bay end zone in the Oct. 20 game.
Of greater impact, he has accounted for 4.5 sacks over those three games to give him 5 for the year, tops among rookies.
Floyd’s speed has risen directly along with his study, not just of his playbook, but also of word-of-mouth help from teammates.
“I learned so much, probably one play at a time, take it one play at a time,” said Floyd, who has played 61 percent of defensive plays despite missing two games entirely with a calf injury. “I get advice from Willie [Young]. I get some from [Sam] Acho. I get some from Pernell. Sometimes from the cornerbacks. I get advice from everybody on the defense.”
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He is the only Bears No. 1 draft choice still with the Bears and not currently on injured reserve, which makes Floyd a minor anomaly for all the wrong reasons. But after a training camp and early rookie season of fits and starts for health reasons, Floyd has begun to emerge as a different kind of anomaly, the kind that the Bears thought was worth moving ahead of the New York Giants to take with the No. 9 pick of the 2016 draft.
“I’ve said all along there’s an uncoachable skill set that he has, that it’s just a matter of time until he gets comfortable in what we’re asking him to do and our terminology, really even the pace and speed and strength of the game at this level,” said coach John Fox. “I’ve seen steady improvement with him since he’s been here and since he’s been healthy enough to be out there and practice and honing his skills. He’ll continue to improve. He’s going to be a very, very good young player.”
The improvement has not been without an occasional high-profile mistake. Earlier in the season he was losing outside responsibility too often, perhaps accustomed to his natural speed allowing him to recover. That may happen at the college level; not in the NFL.
And against Tampa Bay Floyd came free on a third-down rush of Jameis Winston, overshot Winston and allowed the Buccaneers quarterback to extend a pivotal play that resulted in a scrambling deep throw that arguably was the turning point of a game the Bears desperately needed.
It was quite simply a learning experience.
“With most of us, the more you do the better you get,” Fox said. “With him, with his skill set, I think that becomes more and more obvious. He even had a situation on that third-and-10, that big play that Jameis made, he might have kind of hesitated a little bit, left his feet a little bit, relaxed a little bit.
“He’ll learn from that moving forward as he breaks free on pass-rushing situations. It’s an experience that he’ll learn from.”
The Bears’ rookie sack record (12) was set in 2006 by Mark Anderson. Wally Chambers was credited with 9 in 1973, followed by Brian Urlacher with 8 in 2000. Floyd is now doing the things that have him on track to breach that list.
“I see him just slowing down the game mentally, playing faster than he did earlier in the season,” said McPhee, who since returning from knee surgery has played an increasing number of snaps opposite Floyd, who has started the seven games he’s been healthy for. “He’s starting to figure out how to study and watch film, and most important, studying our playbook because without that you can’t play fast.
“He’s going to be good, man, going to be good.”