Monday, October 14, 2013

Bears' Offense Now the Strength of the Team

What a strange year for football 2013 is turning out to be. The Giants are a woeful shell of their two-time Super Bowl winning selves. The Falcons, considered a favorite in the NFC this year, are terrible and lost to the Jets (yes, the Jets) at home last week. The Steelers, a team that contends nearly every year, are in last place in a division that the Browns call home. The Chiefs, with the first pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, are tied with the Broncos for first in the AFC West and remain undefeated. The Texans are a blazing dumpster fire, with Philadelphia-esque cheers for Matt Schaub's injury resonating throughout Reliant Stadium in the shellacking they took from St. Louis yesterday. But in our local, micro-sports world, perhaps the most alarming surprise has been with the Chicago Bears defense.

Who would've thought that after six games this season, the offense would be the strength of the team? Right now, the defense is a major liability as the Bears seem to have come full circle into the modern NFL in only one offseason and six games. For the foreseeable future, until the Bears get some help up front especially, the Bears will need to rely on takeaways to survive on defense, because the picture isn't pretty.

It all starts up front. I'll first get the usual injury disclaimer out of the way, proclaiming that season-ending injuries to stud three technique tackle Henry Melton, and then his backup Nate Collins, certainly don't help matters. Not to mention the loss of the consistent Stephen Paea, a major factor in the run defense. But after saying that, I'll remind you that this defense was getting shredded any of them went down. With or without them, the interior of the line is not only getting zero pass rush, but they can't stop the run. Running backs have absolutely gashed the Bears this season, giving major days to Reggie Bush and a career resurgence from Brandon Jacobs. The Bears get Paea back this week against Washington (hopefully), but their inconsistencies prior to losing their main defensive tackles are concerning to say the least. It is quite possible that this team will not be good against the run the rest of the year.

That isn't nearly as concerning, though, as the weaknesses in the pass rush. When new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker took over, he figured that with the veterans in place it would be smart to keep Lovie Smith's old defense intact to maximize the strength of the personnel and provide one consistent side of the ball heading into a new regime. Essentially Tucker, who has a diverse coaching background, decided to adapt to his new team instead of forcing his system on them. This line of thinking was presumably based on the premise that the Bears offense would be a major work in progress, and like previous years the team would need to lean on its defense to stay competitive this year. 

Peppers has been a disappointment
The problem is, Lovie's base Cover 2 system functions at its highest level with an effective 4 man pass rush. The goal of this strategy is to force quick, poor decisions from a pressured quarterback that either lead to turnovers or punts. We've seen how effective this can be, especially when the Bears have a dominating pass rushing three technique like Tommie Harris (or Henry Melton the past couple years) to couple with good defensive end play.

The problem is, though, that the Bears' defensive ends, aside from the issues in the interior of the line, have been awful all year. Julius Peppers has maybe been the most productive on the line, perhaps barely edging out Corey Wootton. But for someone with his salary, he needs to dominate games. He needs to be a presence in and of himself, and we just have not seen it. Even with his contract restructuring earlier this year, it's hard to picture Peppers in a Bears uniform next year. His cap number this year, even with the restructuring, sits around $14 million. Next year, it will hover around $18 million dollars. We've grown to love Peppers for his athleticism and talent in his 3 years and change in Chicago, but look at the facts. Last year, he had a respectable 11.5 sacks and had a noticeable impact on the production of the defense. Now, in 6 games this season, he has only 1 sack. Peppers is 33 years old and turns 34 in January. Isn't it entirely possible that Peppers has hit that veteran wall? Unless he has an injury that the team is hiding, he appears to have lost his signature explosiveness, the speed, quickness, and athleticism that made him great. I hope that there is something else going on behind the scenes, and that Peppers turns it on soon. Not only do the Bears need it, but at this point Peppers needs it to save his job and contract.

He's not the only one. There are issues all up and down the defensive line. Do any of the defensive ends scare you? Shea McClellin, to this point, is a major bust. He's totally undersized to be a 4-3 defensive end. He's a natural outside pass rushing linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, so unless something new comes up and the Bears are planning on shifting schemes, I just don't understand why Phil Emery drafted him last year. He has the skill set to be successful in this league, with good size (again, for an OLB in a 3-4), plays with a high motor, and has good athleticism. 

As an aside, I would like to point out that it is entirely possible the Bears do move in a 3-4 direction. Mel Tucker has worked with them in the past, and considering the possibility for turnover on the defensive line, the Bears have the flexibility to make the move next offseason. They have the versatility and strength in the linebacker corps, and they could bring in a nose tackle with a couple new ends relatively easily through the draft and free agency (especially considering the amount of free agents the Bears currently have). I personally don't see it happening, but that doesn't mean it won't and it doesn't mean it's not possible given that the Bears brought in four new linebackers in just this offseason in addition to drafting McClellin last year.

The rest of the defense have performed well, except for some minor issues at CB and S. I feel, like I said above, that all the defense's issues start and end at the defensive line, but Charles Tillman's injuries have slowed him more than we'd expect. The Bears have gotten decent production out of Isaiah Frey at the nickel, but their depth at CB is concerning. Zack Bowman is a liability, and the loss of Kelvin Hayden in training camp hurts them more than we thought. At safety, Major Wright is turning into a good strong safety, especially up in the box playing the run. But he needs work still at recognizing the direction of the play presnap and giving help to his corner over the top when need be. His ability to do that, like his safety counterpart Chris Conte, is not only crucial to success in a Cover 2 system, but vital to preventing (or really, covering up) big plays that are more likely to happen given the weak pass rush.

Don't let the defense ruin, however, what we're seeing on offense. This has been Jay Cutler's breakout season, and a terrible first half at Detroit notwithstanding, he's been phenomenal all season long. See what happens when an elite talent gets weapons and protection? This offense, designed by Marc Trestman, has really seen a resurgence from Cutler. It's a West Coast hybrid that incorporates some spread concepts, focusing on getting the ball out Jay's hands quickly and into the hands of his elite playmakers. 

Cutler has been superb
Jay has made great, smart decisions all season long and has cut back enormously on his bad interceptions (some of which, obviously, weren't his fault anyways).  The Bears still have the ability to push the ball downfield, and have shown as such. But now, with their focus on quick passing and more intermediate routes, the offense takes advantage of the intelligence of Jay Cutler just as much as his natural quarterbacking abilities. It's hard to hate on the offense that has looked this good only six weeks into its tenure. With Cutler at the helm, feeling confident in the weapons around him and of course, in his own abilities, this team and this offense finally seem to be clicking. It's exciting to see what sort of potential we have on our hands with Jay.

The offensive line has performed admirably, giving Cutler time even in an offense that isn't comprised entirely of ridiculous seven step drops. The great play of Jermon Bushrod and especially the two rookies on the right side, Kyle Long and Jordan Mills, is something that is not only great right now in a season the Bears should contend for the division, but also bodes well for the future. Long has been my favorite to watch all season. He's athletic, pulls like a veteran, and has a nasty streak to him that will only enhance his overall game once everything comes together. I know I was skeptical of taking long in the first round before the season started, but I'll be the first to admit I was most certainly wrong. There's a reason why the Bears love running Matt Forte to the right and when they do run left, pulling Long off that way as well.

Also aiding Cutler is the addition of Martellus Bennett at tight end and the emergence of Alshon Jeffery at wide receiver. Along with Brandon Marshall, all three present extremely difficult matchup problems for opposing defenses on their own, let alone when they're on the field together. They all make great plays in space, taking advantage of quick slant or screen routes run under Trestman's West Coast shell, but also present highly attractive downfield threats. We saw the separation that Jeffery can make with his explosive coming out party against New Orleans a couple games ago. We know the talents of Marshall, one of the best in the game, but I think we will only see the role of Bennett expand as the Bears move him around and find ways to get him the ball. I loved hearing Trestman say before the Giants game that he focuses his game plans on the ability to move all of his receivers around. Marshall isn't strictly an outside guy, Jeffery doesn't sit solely in the flat, Bennett doesn't just line up as an inline blocker, etc. The goal of Trestman's offense is to be multifaceted and present unpredictable calls and sets to the defense.

Thus far, the offense has been refreshing a joy to watch. Just imagine what happens when all pieces of this new machine - which they would all admit is still a work in progress - start working together at the same time. In this modern NFL era of explosive offenses, it might be enough to overcome the issues the defense has right now. We might be looking at a defense that struggles all year, and could (like they did against the Giants) rely on their old friend, the turnover, to stay competitive. I certainly hope that Peppers turns up his game and that the Bears do not lose anymore starters, offensive or defensive, to injury. I am interested in seeing how this offense continues to develop as they become more comfortable with each other and Trestman's offense. And of course, we'll all be riveted by Cutler, looking to see if he can continue this stretch, his best at quarterback for the Bears. Who knows, with the way this wacky NFL season has gone, anything is possible.