In their continuing series, Pro Football Spot's Chicago Bears team writers Alex Crowe and Jeff Schlegel analyze what to expect out of the team's defensive line unit for the 2014 NFL season.
Bears Score Big Upgrading Defensive Line
By: Alex Crowe
Football is a game that is won and lost in the trenches. On any given play, at any given time, the outcome is determined by how the players on the line step up and take charge.
On offense, those players in the trenches have systematic schemes, blocking packages, and prior knowledge of where the football is going. Their job is to use their massive 300+ pound bodies to shove others out of the way, and protect whomever has the football. Whether it’s keeping defenders out so the quarterback has time to throw the football, or clearing the way for the running back to come barreling through the line, each and every play starts with the dedication, grit and fight that each lineman shows.
Then, there’s the other side of the trenches. The dirty, nasty, sometimes insane players on the defensive line, who want nothing more than to hit anyone and everyone as fast and hard as they can, in hopes of destroying whatever scheme the offense has drawn up. Each and every time the offense steps up to the line, every player on the defensive line turns something on. Something that sets them apart from the rest, something that makes them act like a wild animal with no regard for anything but success.
These are the players that are needed to keep a football team in tact. A good offense will put points on the board and frustrate the opposing team, but a big and nasty defensive line actually strikes legitimate fear into opponents and leads to mistakes by the opponent. As nice as it is to have big-time weapons on offense, a team needs a nasty defensive line to go with it. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the numbers.
In 2014, the Chicago Bears scored 27.8 points per game, good enough for 2nd in the entire NFL. Statistically speaking, only Peyton Manning and his Broncos could score more points in a game than Cutler and the Bears.
That was the offense, though. On defense, the team struggled like they never have before. They had the worst rush defense in the league, and recorded just 31 sacks in 2013. That was the least amount of sacks in a season since 2008, and was down 10 from the 41 sacks the team recorded in 2012.
What was the result? A measly 8-8 record, and a front-row seat at home to watch the playoffs… on TV.
Phil Emery wanted to fix this problem. That’s why he completely re-tooled the defensive line, and filled it not only with experienced veterans and leaders, but also with draft picks who can produce and wreak havoc on opposing teams for years and years to come.
Starting with the ends, Emery did a nice job by signing both Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen. Both are legitimate starters, and both can contain the outside while crashing the corners of the pocket, limiting the space in which the opposing quarterback can see and move around. By doing this, the Bears not only limit the space in which a quarterback has to operate, but they also force everything inside to their defensive tackles.
At the tackle position, the Bears have Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea starting for now. Both are experienced players, but both have also underperformed at certain points of their career, and it would be foolish to think that both players are young and talented enough to start all 16 games for the Bears this season and have success.
That’s why in addition to bringing back Nate Collins, the Bears drafted two big-bodied tackles in Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson in this year’s NFL Draft. Sutton and Ferguson are both players who could easily have a major impact on the 2014 season, as both can learn behind their respective starters, but can also fill in when needed and still see success.
No matter how you look at it, the defensive line for the Bears will be better in 2014 than it was last season. If the offense can repeat or surpass the numbers that they put up in 2013, the Bears should be a contender in the NFC North. Look for Sutton and Ferguson to make a splash, but also don’t be surprised to see a lower-round draft pick from last season step up as well, such as Cornelius Washington or David Bass.
The offense can score points, but if this defensive line unit can strike legitimate fear into opponents and make them think twice before attacking the heart of the line, fans in Chicago are in for another “Monsters of the Midway” type season.
New Faces, Same Results?
By: Jeff Schlegel
It was not a surprise at all to see General Manager Phil Emery address the defensive side of the ball with the same fervor and a similar strategy to how he did the offensive side of the ball the year before. He utilized both free agency and the draft to address the team's glaring needs on the defensive line knowing this unit was the biggest weakness on the Bears defense last season.
A lot of fans and people within the Bears organization are looking at the moves made in free agency and the picks in the draft and saying that this will lead to a big turnaround in the performance of the defensive line unit in 2014. However, I argue that just because you make moves it doesn't necessarily mean you got better.
Emery has received a lot of praise for investing heavily on pass rushers in free agency. He was able to sign Jared Allen, LaMarr Houston and Willie Young, a trio of moves that would seem on the surface to be a huge upgrade to the team's defensive end situation in a big way. Just because you spend a bunch of money and bring in some new faces doesn't mean you have really upgraded.
Jared Allen is the big name signing and on the surface seems to be an upgrade over Julius Peppers. However, Allen is now 32 and even though his sack numbers are still considered very good he is not nearly the all-around defensive end Peppers was. So while the team may gain a little pass rush from him, he has started to decline and could do so even more this year while also representing a downgrade versus the run.
Lamarr Houston was a signing that I'm really a fan of. He's a young all-around player who is just starting to enter the peak of his career and comes with a pretty team friendly price tag. He definitely represents an upgrade over Wootton but isn't quite the player Peppers is even at this stage of his career.
Willie Young is a very nice rotational defensive end that also represents an upgrade, in this case over McClellin. He is a solid player but definitely not special and will only have some impact as a pass rusher.
The Bears were bad at defensive tackle in 2013. Now a portion of this can be attributed to Henry Melton missing most of the season with a torn ACL. However, the poor play of the tackles can't solely be blamed on Melton's injury as the unit lacked depth and frankly talent with or without him. Heading into 2014, the projected starters are a soon to be 33 year old Jay Ratliff and a Stephen Paea who does nothing to inspire confidence in his play. The team addressed this position twice in the 2014 NFL Draft, providing a necessary infusion of youth to the unit. I really love the selection of Will Sutton who has the potential to be the great 3 technique penetrator Melton once was. I do however question using a 2nd round pick on Ego Ferguson, a one-dimensional run stuffer who at his highest aspiration is probably another Stephen Paea.
When I look at the off-season moves made, I really question how much the team upgraded their biggest defensive weakness from a season ago. Allen is a slight all-around downgrade from Peppers and at 32 is due to see his level of play decline even more. Houston is a big upgrade over Wootton but again is not quite the player Peppers was for the Bears. The defensive tackle position just doesn't seem to be in a whole lot better shape than last season. When you're counting on a 33 year old to play like a Pro Bowler, you're asking for trouble.
My biggest issue however is that General Manager Phil Emery failed in my opinion to address the defensive line's bigger weakness last season which was stopping the run. Allen and Young are really just pass rushers while both Ratliff and Paea at one point were starters on the line that let teams run right through them. When teams have to invest so heavily in free agency it means the organization has failed in the draft and will most likely be disappointed in the returns their big name free agent signings give them. Now while the Bears and many fans will try and tell me this unit is better and will show it in 2014, I look at this unit and only see changes in the names, not in the quality of play. I expect this unit to still struggle mightily against the run and not be much better rushing the passer and still be the weak link of this defense in 2014.
Alex Crowe is the lead Chicago Bears writer for Pro Football Spot. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexCrowe38
Jeff Schlegel is a Chicago Bears writer for Pro Football Spot. Follow him on Twitter: @pfspot_Schlegel. Also check out his NFL and Fantasy Football related videos at: