Why the Bears defense needs to be healthy, ready when the bell rings

Why the Bears defense needs to be healthy, ready when the bell rings

John Fox has yet to win a game as Bears head coach in the month of September. And when the schedule was released a few weeks ago, fans probably didn’t feel it would get much better in 2017.

While the offense adapts to new quarterbacks and receivers trying to learn a new system, the defense (particularly the secondary) will still be in the fresh stages of “getting-to-know-you.” If there’s any unit that needs to be ready (and, especially healthy) at the starting gate, it’s Vic Fangio’s guys. The offenses they’ll face will be powerful, with weapons galore.

To wit:

Sept. 10 vs. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons were the league’s No. 2 offense last season behind MVP Matt Ryan. The quarterback ranked first in passer rating (117.1), second in touchdown passes (38) and passing yards (4,944) and third in completion percentage (69.9). The NFC Champions also had the receiver with the third-most yards (1,409) in Julio Jones, and the ninth-leading rusher in Devonta Freeman (1,079). He and Tevin Coleman combined for 1,600 yards on the ground

Sept. 17 at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Bucs only ranked 18th in offense a year ago, and the NFL’s second-best rusher from two years ago, Doug Martin, may be out due to a suspension, forcing them to lean on ex-Bear Jacquizz Rodgers. But he still averaged 4.3 yards per rush in Martin’s absence before a season-ending injury. Jameis Winston enters his third season coming off two 4,000-yard passing seasons to begin his career. Mike Evans was a big part of that, especially last season, when he was tied for second in TD catches (12), fourth in yards (1,321) and sixth in receptions (96). But all they’ve done in the offseason is add receivers DeSean Jackson (free agency) and Chris Godwin (third round draftee), and All-American tight end O.J. Howard (19th overall draft pick).

Sept. 24 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

A week later, it’s back home against the Steelers and their seventh-ranked offense from a year ago. Ben Roethlisberger tied for sixth in touchdown passes (29) and ranked 11th in passer rating. Main target Antonio Brown was second in the NFL with 106 catches, tied for second with a dozen TD catches and was fifth in receiving yards (1,384). Not to be outdone, Le'Veon Bell ranked fifth with 1,268 rushing yards. Second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster is insurance if Martavis Bryant can’t stay off the suspended list.

Sept. 28 at Green Bay Packers

So four days after the black and gold on the lakefront it’s the green and gold up the road at Lambeau. Do we really need to go there? Well, if you want: the No. 8 offense featured the quarterback who led the league in touchdown passes (40) and finished fourth in passing yards and passer rating (4,428 and 104.2, respectively), not to mention the fact Aaron Rodgers almost always finds a way to beat the Bears. They may need to turn to fourth round rookie Jamaal Williams to run the ball, but remember how ex-wideout Ty Montgomery had no problem facing the Bears (with a 5.9 yard rushing average for the season). Then there’s Jordy Nelson, first in touchdown catches (14), fifth in receptions (97) and sixth in yards (1,257). Davante Adams’ 12 touchdown catches tied for second with Evans, as he and Randall Cobb combined for 135 receptions. Oh, and they signed former Bear Martellus Bennett to fill a “need” at tight end.

If the defense can keep the games close (a big “if”), there’s no doubt the offense will lean on Jordan Howard. Against the run a year ago, Atlanta ranked 17th, Tampa Bay 22nd, Pittsburgh 13th, and Green Bay eighth.

How can the Bears make Khalil Mack even better in 2019?

USA Today

How can the Bears make Khalil Mack even better in 2019?

In the midst of Khalil Mack’s All-Pro debut season with the Bears, then-outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley offered a thought of how his star pupil could be even better in 2019. With the benefit of a full offseason of OTAs and training camp, the Bears would be able to move Mack around more within their defense, which would present tougher challenges for opposing coaching staffs trying to gameplan for him. 

Staley left for the Denver Broncos along with Vic Fangio back in January. But a new coaching staff has the same thought: There’s more to what Mack can do than we saw in 2018. And 2018 was pretty impressive. 

“There will be opportunities for him to do a variety of things from a variety of different alignments,” senior defensive assistant/outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “Freedom, he has a little bit. But variety he has plenty. There’s plenty of things that we’re going to try to use him for and to do with him that allow him to showcase the things he does well.”

The No. 1 thing Mack does well, to boil it down, is wreck a game. Every head coach and offensive coordinator around the league has to develop a plan for limiting those game-wrecking abilities. It meant quick throws, the kind that leave the quarterback’s hand before Mack can even set up a pass-rushing move, for some teams. For others, it meant offering extra pass protection support through committing a tight end, running back or both to slowing him down. Mack still found a way to total 12 1/2 sacks and 73 total pressures, all while an ankle injury effectively wiped out four games in the middle of the season. 

“You’ve got a phenomenal, phenomenal athlete, all that stuff” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He’s a great football player, but he’s a better teammate. And he’s a better person. He doesn’t say much, but actions speak louder than words. Again, he’s a great worker. He’s a smart guy. He picks things up. Not gonna say much, but out here on the football field he’s going to lead by example.” 

As the 2018 season progressed, the Bears felt more comfortable with having Mack play on the left and right during games, not one spot exclusively (in the season’s first four weeks, 166 of Mack’s snaps came on the left and 25 came on the right, per Pro Football Focus). By the playoffs, the Bears were able to strategically use Mack on either side of their defense to try to counter-act the scheming done by Eagles coach Doug Pederson (Mack played 26 snaps on the left and 26 on the right in that game, per Pro Football Focus). 

But both the previous and current coaching staffs envision Mack being able to do more than just line up on either side of the formation. And Monachino has experience in figuring out the best way to create that variety he talked about, too: He was Terrell Suggs’ position coach in 2011 when the Baltimore Ravens edge rusher won defensive player of the year honors (also: That was the lone year in which Pagano was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator). 

Suggs primarily rushed from various defensive line positions (end/outside linebacker, as designated by Pro Football Focus), but lined up off the ball on a little under 20 percent of his snaps in 2011. An article described him as playing a “hybrid-linebacker” position, which sounds about right. 

Suggs finished 2011 with 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles and two interceptions. 

It’s only May, which means it’s far too early to predict how the Bears will use Mack. Coaches don’t even know the specifics yet. But it’s fair to expect a few different wrinkles for how Mack’s game-wrecking ability is deployed in the Bears’ defense with a full complement of offseason practices — and, too, the coaching minds of Monachino and Pagano. 

“With a player like this, you don’t even have to sit in the offense’s meeting rooms on the other side to know that they have to tend to him on every snap,” Monachino said, referencing Suggs. “They have to know where (former Pittsburgh Steelers safety) Troy Polamalu is on every snap. You gotta know where (Houston Texans edge rusher) JJ Watt is on every snap. This is a guy that you have to do that with. So with Khalil, being able to predict that they’re going to talk about, how do we tend to Khalil Mack on every snap, and then being able to move him into different spots and then to show him in different ways and to do different things with him, it’s going to be really valuable for the defense.”

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

USA Today

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

When the Bears’ defense takes the field against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Opening Night, they’ll be returning 9 of the 11 starters that were part of a 2018 squad that was one of the best in Bears’ history. 

One of the few new faces that figure to be among the starting 11 is cornerback Buster Skrine. Gone is Bryce Callahan, who left for Vic Fangio’s Denver team after spending the first four years of his career in Chicago. Though Bears’ scouts have had their eye on Skrine for a few seasons now, it was his more palatable three-year, $16.5 million contract -- compared to Callahan’s three-year, $21 million contract -- that finally got him in house. 

“Me and Buster came out the exact same year, and I’ve watched him,” Prince Amukamara said after OTAs on Wednesday afternoon. “He actually played with my best friend and he would always talk about how fast Buster is -- especially when Buster played gunner. 

“I’ve always watched him, and I feel like he’s very similar to Bryce [Callahan] by being quick and being active. I’m definitely happy with the pick up.” 

Once considered a spot to place the third-best, less-athletic cornerback, no position has seen it's value increase so dramatically over the last decade. Offenses are changing dramatically; no team saw more three receiver sets in 2018 than the Bears’ defense. Per Sharp Stats, opposing offenses lined up in 11 personnel against Chicago 78% of the time. The next closest was the Chiefs at 71%, and the NFL average is 65%. 

“I think nickel is a different ball game,” Amukamara added. “I would say it can be one of the hardest positions on the field, just because you’re on an island, but the receiver has so much room to work with. Plus, it’s a lot of mental gymnastics, so you’ve got to know when you’re blitzing, know when you’re running, and so we put a lot on our nickel.” 

Despite not being considered part of a what teams have traditionally considered base defense, the pass-happy nature of this era in the NFL has all but mandated that nickel corners are on the field for most of the defensive snaps. It’s no coincidence that before breaking his foot against the Rams in Week 12, Callahan was on pace to set a career-high in snap percentage. 

“Nowadays, you see a lot more sub packages,” Bears defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend said. “You’re probably playing 70% in sub during a game now… Otherwise, it hasn’t really changed - he just plays more. That’s the thing - he is technically a starter. He’s probably going to run on the field first in a lot of games, and by rule that’s a starter.

“One thing about the nickel position is that you’ve got to do a little bit of both. You can’t just go out on 3rd down and cover and run the option routes. Now they’re going to hand off the ball and find out where you’re at and you’re going to have to make a tackle. That’s the difference in the position now - it’s a first and second down type of guy that has to be able to do it all.”

While Skrine isn’t considered as good a cover corner as Callahan, Skrine’s pass rush and run defense looks pretty similar. Per Pro Football Focus, Skrine’s run defense graded out significantly higher (80.7) than Callahan’s (57.8). 

“With Buster, it’s about his playing experience,” Townsend added. “He’s a guy who will mix it up in the run. He can blitz, and he’s reliable. He’s tough.”