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.

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.