Defensive Scheme May Dictate Safety First

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune speculates as to what general manager Phil Emery’s first round pick will tell us about their plans on defense:

“It would be fascinating if, by some measure of good fortune, the Bears went on the clock in the first round of the NFL draft May 8 with Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Louisville safety Calvin Pryor and Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert still available.”

“General manager Phil Emery’s choice in that scenario would teach us a bit about how he believes a defense should be built and the scheme in coordinator Mel Tucker’s second season.”

“One of the most intriguing mysteries of the Bears’ yet-to-be-revealed schematic tweaks is how they will use their safeties. Will Tucker want to play a safety closer to the line of scrimmage instead of the two-deep alignment for which the Bears were known under former coach Lovie Smith? That could depend on the talent at Tucker’s disposal.

“Clinton-Dix is known for his range in coverage, while Pryor earned a reputation for tackling and physical play closer to the line of scrimmage.”

Adam Jahns at the Chicago Sun-Times takes the conversation a bit farther:

“The growing importance of safeties (see all the money they’ve received in free agency recently) can’t be ignored. Offenses are attacking defenses in many ways, and having do-everything safeties has become crucial.”

True.  But perhaps more to the point, defenses are attacking offenses in many ways.  In this respect, Dan Pompei’s excellent article on the importance of safeties points to the central issue:

“Once upon a time, the conventional wisdom said you don’t want safeties at the top of your salary pyramid. That wisdom is changing as the passing game is becoming more prominent. A safety who can cover can be an antidote for the new-age, athletic, pass-catching tight end, and he can allow a defensive coordinator freedom to use his cornerbacks and linebackers more aggressively.”

“‘When you went against [Ed Reed or Troy Polamalu], you had to give a guy on scout team a special-colored jersey so you knew where they were,’ [a] senior exec said.”

Despite the implications in my last post, who you line up at defensive end isn’t going to make the difference in a versatile scheme.  Its where you line up your linebackers and, to an extent, your defensive backs.  More and more, your safeties are the center of your defense, needing to be tough and big enough to play linebacker near the line of scrimmage, yet athletic enough to cover man-to-man in the slot, cover a tight end in the seam or cover ball to boundary deep.

Taking the ability of the safeties themselves out of the equation, being able to move other players around to confuse defenses and to take advantage of mismatches depends critically on being able to count on your safeties to plug the gaps that are left.  You can argue that their ability to do so almost completely determines what you can and can’t do.

It’s a fascinating problem and, as you look at it closely, you realize that its one the Bears haven’t solved.  More and more it looks like, all things being equal, safety will be where the Bears will go early in the draft.  It may be the key to everything they wish to do.

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Brad Biggs Mailbag: Draft Order Quirks and the Pass Defense

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune had a particularly interesting “Mail Bag” this morning.  A few questions are worth highlighting:

“Why is it that the Bears have the 14th pick in the first round but the 19th pick in the second? — @neilhelbraun from Twitter

“The Bears were one of six teams to finish at 8-8 last season and by virtue of the strength of schedule tiebreaker, the Bears have the best pick of the group that includes the Cowboys, Ravens, Steelers, Dolphjns and Jets. However, the order changes in each round with the Bears rotating to the back of this pack for Round 2.”

[slapping head] Forty years a football fan and I never noticed that the draft order changed from round to round in this way.  Having said that, its nice that the Bears caught a break and went to the front of this group in the first round this year.  Its a deep draft and it probably won’t make a whole lot of difference, especially with Emery’s tendency to go his own way in the first round and draft guys most didn’t see coming anyway.  But it makes a difference.

These two seem to go together to me:

“People are projecting Lamarr Houston to kick inside for Bears on third down and he is listed at 300 pounds but looked more like 260 last year in a two-point stance. Can he do that? — @yestello from Twitter

“When Houston was drafted by the Raiders, he showed up in Oakland as a 300-pound defensive tackle and owner Al Davis told him he would become a defensive end. Houston tipped the scales at 300 the day he arrived and the Raiders never changed his listed weight after that. Houston told me he played at 275 pounds last season and I’d expect him to be in that range for the Bears this season even though the team’s Web site lists him at 300 right now. There is no question Houston can move inside and play tackle in the nickel package. In fact, you should count on seeing it.”

“Is Shea McClellin the starter at strong-side linebacker? Is he going to even be on the field much in third down situations to rush the passer? — @Ampriest from Twitter

“I definitely envision him as part of the nickel defense as a pass rusher playing with his hand in the dirt. While the sack totals have not been acceptable, the Bears believe McClellin has been productive in that role. It’s been a long time since the team had a linebacker move to end in pass-rushing situations but the Bears did that very well in 2001 and 2002 with then strong-side linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. We’ll see what unfolds for McClellin. He’s going to have a chance to play in the base defense and the nickel package but he has to produce.”

So as the defense takes shape it seems we have some mystery about what its going to look like in pass rushing situations.  Houston moves to the three technique tackle.  Jared Allen is the right end.  No question there.  If McClellin moves to left end, that takes Willie Young off the field.  But I don’t think the Bears signed Young to sit the bench in passing situations.  I think, like safety Ryan Mundy,  they signed Young because they plan to further develop him and I think they plan to play him.

A couple possibilities:

  1. We could see a rotation at left end in passing situations with Young taking some snaps and McClellin taking the rest.  It may also depend upon the right tackle.  Young is a bigger player and he might handle some tackles better that McClellin, who still has a habit of being engulfed by bigger tackles.
  2. Its entirely possible, in contrast to the speculation from Biggs, that the Bears play McClellin at linebacker in passing situations.  This would allow him to rush the passer from there.  It may depend on how he looks in coverage at the new position.
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Paul Richardson Is Phil Emery’s Kind of Prospect

Though some may argue that the Bears have their third wide receiver on the sorer already in Marquess Wilson but Wilson hasn’t shown anything, yet.   Add the fact that Brandon Marshall is entering the last year of his contract and Alshon Jeffery has only two years left on his and it would be no surprise if the Bears took a wide receiver in the NFL draft if the right guy falls.  Enter ex-Colorado wide receiver Paul Richardson, a potential third rounder.

Richarson is lanky 6’0 3/8”, 175 lb and ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper says of Richardson “if he can fill out that frame and get a little stronger, could be an interesting guy”.  This makes him Bears general manager Phil Emery’s interesting kind of guy.  Emery has a background as a strength and conditioning coach likes to take prospects who have the right frame but appear to need work in the weight room in the draft, including former first round pick Shea McClellin and second round wide receiver Jeffery.

Richardson may be a guy to keep an eye on especially if he falls into the mid-rounds.

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The Case for Drafting a Safety

Dan Pompei makes a pretty good case for making safety a top defensive priority in today’s NFL for Sports on Earth:

“Athletic safeties are becoming weapons in their own right. In fact, a defensive coordinator really can’t be much of a mad scientist unless he has some explosive safeties in his lab. Versatile safeties are the key to a creative defense.

“Last year the Saints chose safety Kenny Vaccaro with the 15th pick in the first round of the draft. Rob Ryan played him all over the field, having him cover the slot receiver, blitz, play linebacker and be the last line of defense. [Former Tamp Bay general manager MarkDominik believes more safeties are blitzing these days, in part because they sometimes are being lined up over the flexed tight end. That can give the safety a short path to the quarterback and a chance at a sack as long as the defense can roll coverage behind him.”

“[Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said,] ‘You need guys who are multi-dimensional with the way the game is changing.’”

Pompei is pushing all of my buttons in this article.  Two weeks ago I would have told you that I wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of the Bears drafting a safety in the first round.  But the more I think about it, the more it becomes apparent to me that if general manager Phil Emery’s guy is there in the early rounds, he’ll go in this direction.

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Need Vs. Best Available? It All Depends.

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune answers your questions:

I am very excited to have [defensive end Jared] Allen in the fold. What do you expect the defensive end rotation to look like? I assume Allen and [Lamarr] Houston are the starters with [Willie] Young and Israel Idonije backing them up. I have much love for Idonije for all his years of service but was really impressed with David Bass last season. Wouldn’t the Bears be better off continuing to develop Bass rather than plugging in the below-average and over-the-hill (if reliable) Idonije? He did nothing for Detroit last season. – Dave M., Portland, Ore.

“The top three ends are clearly Allen, Houston and Young. Bass showed flashes of being a nice young player last season and needs to continue to develop. The Bears have some solid competition for the fourth end position that also includes Cheta Ozougwu as well as Austen Lance and Trevor Scott. Idonije could also figure in the mix inside at tackle and that could be where the Bears look to use him. Bass needs to get better and nothing is going to be handed to him. In a best-case scenario, the Bears have to make a difficult roster cut come September.”

My assumption is that Allen and Young will be the ends in the base nickel defense with Houston at the three technique.  That gets all three on the field at once.  Given the somewhat thin depth at defensive tackle, I think there’s little doubt that the Bears envision Idonije in the rotation there.

“Any chance the Bears look at drafting A.J. McCarron late in the draft to be the quarterback of the future? — @MichaelDownes from Twitter

“You get some varied opinions when it comes to the Alabama product and like a lot of the quarterbacks in this draft he’s a bit of a wild card. But I would be surprised if McCarron is available in the late rounds. Most project him to be a third-round pick with a possibility of sneaking into the second round. The contract the Bears signed [Jay] Cutler to indicates he’s the starter for probably at least the next three seasons so I don’t know if it is time for the Bears to start wondering about their 2017 starter. When you look at offensive positions the team could target in the draft, running back, tight end and wide receiver are greater needs, in my opinion.”

I tend to agree with Biggs here in that I don’t see the Bears drafting a quarterback in the mid-rounds.  If they did, you have to assume that they really liked him and you could reasonably expect him to be the back up in 2015 with a future as a starter.  But that’s not likely and I’m sure they’d rather spend those picks on a player that would see the field more in 2014.

The Bears might still pick up a young quarterback.  Like most general managers, Phil Emery has said that ideally he’d like to draft one every year.  But if they do, I’d be surprised if such a pick didn’t come late in either the sixth or seventh round.  Perhaps they’d even bring in a college free agent.

“The Bears put a lot of work into bolstering the front four (I’ll even give them the front seven if you’re drinking the Kool Aid on a move to linebacker making Shea McClellin better) but they haven’t addressed depth in the secondary. While they might hit on a starter or two in the draft, that porous defensive back unit needs more. What street free agent and/or draftees projected into the latter rounds intrigue you? — Gregory M., Naperville

“They haven’t done a lot for depth at cornerback but they did re-sign starters Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman. Zack Bowman is the one that got away as he went to the Giants. Kelvin Hayden is back in the mix for the nickel cornerback job with Isaiah Frey and Sherrick McManis is primarily viewed as a special teams player. They also signed Ryan Mundy at the outset of free agency and the plan is for him to start, probably at strong safety. You can’t get it all done in free agency and really you don’t want to go that route. The Bears need an infusion of young talent and that will come via the draft. I think they need to look at the secondary in the early rounds of the draft not the latter rounds. A cornerback and a safety are both needs. A street free agent isn’t going to solve any real issues.”

Though depth in the secondary is an issue and I would, indeed, look for the Bears to go in that direction in the early rounds, the situation isn’t as bad as it looks.  For one thing the improvement in the front seven will mean improvement on the back end.

Hayden is a reasonably good first cornerback off the bench with Isaiah Frey moving into his spot at nickel back (if Frey doesn’t win the job outright).  The bigger issue is still at safety where I’m sure the Bears definitely would like to add competition and depth but you could do a lot worse than Craig Steltz as your first backup off the bench there.

“We know the greatest draft needs for the Bears are the secondary and defensive tackle, but what if a Teddy Bridgewater, Jake Matthews, Taylor Lewan or even Mike Evans are available at No. 14? Do you pull the trigger and take the best player available or let those guys go and draft for need? — Mike M., Chicago

“It’s great when you hear clubs talk about drafting the ‘best available’ player but in reality that is more spin than anything else. Reality is clubs need to plug holes with top talent at specific positions at the top of the draft. Let’s say safety is the greatest need, at least for the purpose of this discussion. If the Bears have a significantly higher grade on a player at another position, then it’s time for a discussion. But Bridgewater isn’t going to help the team win games in 2014 and the signing of a player like Jared Allen is a clear indication the Bears are hoping to compete for a Super Bowl this year. Look at some of the core players on defense. Allen is 32. Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman are 33. Tim Jennings is 30. Also defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff will turn 33 before the season opens and D.J. Williams will be 32. The Bears need to invest high draft picks on defensive talent in order to avoid having to spend big dollars on short-term fixtures via free agency.”

I’m going to disagree but only mildly in that it does, indeed, depend on the specific situation.  For one thing, Mike Evans would help the team win now as he’d be the third wide receiver and on the field for at least half the snaps.

More to the point, in 2005 the Packers didn’t need a quarterback.  But when Aaron Rogers fell to 24th overall, they pulled the trigger.

Case closed.

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What the Addition of Brian De La Puente Tells Us

The Bears surprised me yesterday by adding veteran center Brian de la Puente.  From Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune:

“De la Puente, the Saints’ starting center the last three seasons, agreed to terms Sunday on a one-year contract for the minimum-salary benefit with the understanding he is coming in to play behind starter Roberto Garza, a captain and the leader in the offensive line room.”

There were questions going in to this season at center for the Bears.  The succession plan for Garza, who is 35 years old, wasn’t apparent.  No one knew for sure what the Bears thought of back up Taylor Boggs as the heir apparent and many of us were waiting to see if the Bears drafted another lineman to compete for the job.

De la Puente’s signing was surprising because he’s not exactly young at 29 years old.  However, he’s not old either.  So the question now is whether de la Puente is the a one year fill in who took a minimum salary benefit deal or if he’s the starting center of the future, al be it a future of only a few years.

Pro Football Focus had de la Puente rated as their number six free agent going into the signing period.  He was their number two center on the market behind Alex Mack:

“De La Puente is a good pass-blocking center; in his three seasons as a starter he has never posted a Pass Blocking Efficiency under 98.2 and has given up a total of 46 pressures in 2144 passing snaps. In his best season has a pro, 2012, De La Puente managed to take his pass-blocking skill set and add to it by drastically improving his run blocking. In 2011 and 2013 he put up a poor combined run blocking grade of -8.5, but showed in 2012 what he was capable of by recording a +13.6.

“With De La Puente turning 29 before the season, interested teams will either have to accept the idea that he is simply good pass blocker who struggles in the run game, or bank on him regaining his form from 2012. The team that adds De La Puente to their roster will be getting a reliable player who, in the past three seasons, has not missed any time due to injury.”

It’s possible that both the Bears and de la Puente are hoping that he reclaims his form of 2012 and improves his run blocking again under his old offensive line coach Aaron Kromer.  We may get to see if that happens if he’s needed as the back up this year.  If he does, it will clear up a number of issues.

But the offseason isn’t over yet and what the Bears are thinking still isn’t entirely clear.  The one thing we now know for sure is that the Bears weren’t totally comfortable with Boggs backing up Garza.  The Bears aren’t likely to keep three centers as it is unless the third guy can play guard and Boggs’ future with the team this year is in serious jeopardy.  It remains to be seen what happens to him.  And the Bears may still pick up another younger center.  If they do, we’ll know the answer to Boggs’ future and, even if its just a late round pick, de la Puente will have a tough hurdle to overcome to become the Bears starter in 2015.

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What Will Phil Emery Be Looking For in the Draft? Think Size.

Bears general manager Phil Emery is a tough guy to figure out, especially when it comes to the NFL draft.  Emery has a habit of going his own way.  He sticks to his board and takes the guys he believes in no matter what outside influences might think.  His picks in the first round of his first two NFL drafts, Shea McClellin and Kyle Long, were both taken when conventional wisdom would have indicated that the Bears go in another direction.

So guessing who Emery is going to take this year in the draft is a bit of a exercise in futility.  But we might be able to guess what he’ll be looking for in whoever he chooses.  In this regard, Dan Pompei’s statement for the Bleacher Report was never more true:

“The draft class has a number of prospects who are smaller than ideal. Many of these players will be downgraded significantly by some teams, but not by others, because undersized players need to be scheme fits.”

It’s a decent bet that Emery was one of the general managers that Pompei was thinking about.  When asked at the NFL Combine about what he’s learned from the McClellin experiment, Emery said this:

“In terms of pure defensive ends probably make sure they’re a little bit longer and a little bit heavier.”

When asked about new defensive end Willie Young, once again, Emery emphasized his size and length (6 feet 4, 251 pounds):

“He has 35-inch arms.  He uses that advantage to gain leverage and separation. He has strong hands, a good punch. He’s a good athlete with a lot of upside.”

Its true that Emery was talking about defensive ends.  But the lesson can probably be applied to any position along the defensive line and, with the size of the receivers in the NFC North, you can figure Emery won’t be drafting any smallish cornerbacks.  Wide receiver?  One look at Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery is all you need to make a pretty good guess at Emerythinking in  third option.  He’s also at some point going to be looking for a second tight end who can block to compliment Martellus Bennett and a running back who can run inside in short yardage situations to complement Matt Forte.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the more likely prospects that may be available when the Bears pick and see what they might be thinking.  Bear in mind that this is strictly a judgment in terms of height and weight.  These players may not have the other characteristics Emery might be looking for.  However, we might use such a list as an initial  effort at trimming the field:

Prospects that Don’t Fit:

Aaron Donald, DT – 6”0 3/4”, 285 lb
Darqueze Dennard, CB – 5’10 7/8”, 199 lb
Calvin Pryor, S – 5’11 1/8″, 207 lb
Bradley Robey, CB – 5’11 1/4”, 194 lb

Prospects that Fit:

Mike Evens, WR – 6’4 3/4”, 231 lbs (admittedly highly highly unlikely to still be there)
C.J. Mosely, ILB – 6’2”, 234 lb
Ha Ha Clinton Dix, S – 6’1 3/8”, 208 lb
Eric Ebron, TE – 6’4 3/4”, 250 lb
Timmy Jernigan, DT – 6’1 5/8”, 299 lb
Justin Gilbert, CB – 6’0 1/8”, 202 lb (borderline call)
Ra’Shede Hageman, DT – 6’5 7/8”, 310 lb
Louis Nix, DT – 6’2 3/8”, 331 lb

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Age is in Your Mind

Dan Pompei at Sports on Earth tells this story of Seattle head coach Pete Carroll:

“True story: At the NFL meetings in Orlando, Fla., a couple weeks ago, one coach of Carroll’s vintage stopped by the bar and complained about his hemorrhoids. And then Carroll walked by with his full head of hair feathered back, and his smooth healthy looking skin. He was wearing an untucked button down shirt over well-fitting jeans with sharp loafers, looking nothing like a football coach. Especially an old football coach.

“I asked Carroll how he does it.  ‘I always think something good is about to happen,’ Carroll said. ‘It’s a general way of looking at the world. I’ve never looked at games and challenges like it’s going to go bad, it’s not going to work out. I don’t see it that way. I think that’s really helped. I don’t live in the gloom of what might go wrong. I live in the glow of what could happen that’s good. That’s been the guiding principle.’”

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Why the Bears and Allen Kept Negotiations on the Down Low

Bears general manager Phil Emery discusses the need for secrecy during negotiations with new defensive end Jared Allen.  Via Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune:

“‘It does make a difference on any contract situation,’ Emery said, ‘because you remove the pressure of other situations. So the fact that we were able to do this quietly removed the counter, per se. … Jared felt that we were the right fit and we were going [to] continue through without it getting out in the papers and allowing others to advance in terms of countering during the period where we were trying to come to an agreement.’”

The advantages to the Bears in terms of preventing other teams from making counter offers is obvious.  The advantage to Allen is not.  You’d think that he’d want to drive the price up by allowing other teams to bid.

I can only conclude that Allen was sure that no other teams weren’t going to offer the package that the Bears did and that he was sure Chicago was where he wanted to be.  And it does have the advantage of preventing distractions while trying to get the work done on the contract. Still, you wouldn’t think it would hurt to let other teams think about making a last effort.  All you have to say is “No”.

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The Bears Defense Now Defined: A Little Talent and a Lot of Vision

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune writes a nice article on the evolution of the Bears defensive scheme.  He describes what coaches around the league are thinking when they consider what a disruptive defense looks like:

“‘Talent is important, but you can schematically try to create match ups,’ Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt said. ‘We try to do it offensively. You never know for sure what you’re going to get.’”

“So what’s the key to that?

“‘If you’re going to change in and out,’ Whisenhunt said, ‘then you’ve got to have the athletic defensive end/linebacker that can do multiple things for you, that has the ability to line up in different spots and create those mismatches.’

“[LamarrHouston and end-turned-linebacker Shea McClellin project into those roles for the Bears.”

Two points.

First, its evident that defensive end Jared Allen was the missing piece a week ago.  All of the coaches that Campbell interviewed said the same thing – you have to get pressure on the quarterback with four men.  That is always going to start with Allen.  Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker can now start with the assumption that offenses will design protections to stop Allen first and he can put together what he will do in each situation depending upon how the offense decides to go about doing that.  Unlike the situation a week ago, Allen is the man that now allows you to close your eyes and see how the defense is going to look.

Second, I can’t stress enough how much good position coaching is going to have to be a part of this defensive overhaul.  For the last decade the Bears have predicated their defense on doing one thing really well.  Everyone knew their role and executed it.  Now players are going to have multiple roles depending on the situation.  Indeed, they may not know what their role is until the offense lines up.

Houston might be a three technique tackle one play, an end the next and a linebacker the one after that.  Shea McClellin will now be adding the role of linebacker when he hasn’t played all that well just as a defensive end for two years now.  Players are going to have to be better prepared now than they have ever been before.

As author Joseph Murray once said, “We go where our vision is.”  The Bears have the flexibility on defense in terms of personnel to do that and they know where to start when putting together their schemes.  Now its up to hard work in a world of pure imagination.

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