In their continuing 2014 NFL season team preview series, Pro Football Spot's Chicago Bears writers Alex Crowe and Jeff Schlegel take a look at what to expect from the team's linebacking unit this upcoming season.
Linebackers Will Prove They Are Improved in 2014
By: Alex Crowe
There’s no hiding the fact that linebacker was one of, if not the worst position for the Bears in 2013. Without Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs in the middle of the field, the team was left with absolutely no leadership and really not a whole lot of skill to work with in their linebacking core.
So why will this be different in 2013?
Let’s start in the middle. Last season, DJ Williams was brought in to help ease the loss of Urlacher. He provided experience and leadership in a linebacking core that was lacking in both, and everyone knew that Jon Bostic wasn’t ready to start as a rookie middle linebacker in the NFL.
Early on in training camp, the team got used to playing without Bostic. He was held out of the entire preseason with a calf injury, and Bostic stepped in to take his place. Once Williams got back into his starting role, he never really seemed comfortable playing in a system that he was totally unused to surrounded by players that he never played with before. By the end of Week 6, Williams was on the IR with a torn pectoral muscle, and the team was left with a rookie starting in one of the most difficult positions in the entire NFL.
Now, as opposed to having a guy who knows nothing about the Chicago Bears or their system, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has an experienced veteran who is hungry to get back on the field and show he still has what it takes to succeed in the NFL. Williams had a season to get used to the defensive scheme and study Tucker’s defense, and comes into training camp this season ready to be a sound leader in the middle.
Not only that, but Tucker also has Bostic, who is looking like he very well may be the future of the Bears and their defense. Last season, Bostic was thrown into a situation that no rookie can ever be expected to succeed in. He now has a full year of experience, confidence and knowledge under his belt, and if Williams goes down again, Bostic is a guy who can be relied upon to step up and run the defense.
Make no mistake about it, the leap from year one to year two in the NFL is a big one. Any player who can overcome that hurdle and find success in their sophomore year has a chance to dig things in this league.
On the weakside, Lance Briggs will be back. That’s all that really needs to be said about that. Despite being 34 and nearing the end of his career, Briggs still brings leadership and experience that is hard to find. Briggs doesn’t need to lay his body on the line as much this season, or at least that’s what the hope and plan is.
A bolstered defensive line should be able to help the linebacking core by stopping the run and pressuring opposing quarterbacks. The middle of the field is where the Bears seemed most vulnerable last season, and if Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston can pressure quarterbacks like they have in the past, the Bears immediately fix this without adding anyone new to the linebacking core. It makes the life of Briggs and everyone else who plays linebacker for the Chicago Bears a lot easier when teams aren’t throwing and/or running at will against them.
Briggs is backed up by Khaseem Greene, another player who was forced into a starting role as a rookie last season when he clearly was not ready. Greene didn’t play very well last season, but with a full offseason to learn the system and a leader like Briggs above him, Greene very well may surprise a lot of people with his play in 2014.
As for the strongside, everything is up in the air. The hope is that Shea McClellin can have greater success at linebacker than he did as a 4-3 defensive end. The good news is that he doesn’t have to do a whole lot at linebacker to do better than he did at end.
McClellin is an outside backer. Just by looking at the guy, anyone who has ever seen a game of football can tell that he doesn’t belong down on his hands and feet in the trenches. The best aspect of his game is speed, and by standing him up on the outside and allowing him to run all over the field, McClellin instantly becomes more versatile and dangerous to opposing teams.
This move also hinges on the defensive line. If the newly retooled line does what it is supposed to, McClellin could very well go unseen on the radar of opposing quarterbacks. He’ll be able to use his speed to get to the ball, and he also has more room to move around and gain momentum. If the ball is run towards him, McClellin has a much better show at stopping the running back by running full speed at the ball carrier rather than trying to fight his way past an offensive lineman down on all fours.
The linebacking core will look familiar and different for Bears fans in 2014. Mel Tucker has more freedom this season that he did last, and as of right now he also has two veteran leaders who can help bridge the gap between talent and age. He also has more freedom to mix up schemes, and has new players in new places.
This is going to be a fun experiment to watch. The success of the linebackers has a lot to do with the success of the defensive line, but these linebackers have a great transcend all expectations and put together a really solid core. They have the knowledgeable veterans, young talent, and freedom to throw in packages and schemes that can make a quarterback cry himself to sleep.
Linebackers Glaring Weakness on the Defense
By: Jeff Schlegel
The Chicago Bears defense as a whole was a disaster in 2013. There was one play that perfectly summed up the team's defense and especially the linebacking unit last season. In the last game of the season at home versus Green Bay, Julius Peppers forces Aaron Rodgers to fumble. James Anderson runs right past the ball and doesn't pick it up even though players are taught in pee-wee football to play till the whistle sounds. Of course Jarrett Boykin picks the ball up and eventually scores a touchdown. That's the Bears defense of 2013.
Much to my surprise at least Emery didn't address the linebacking corps really at all this off-season. As much effort as was put forth to address the defensive line and the secondary, one might imagine he might have bothered to improve the linebacking depth and talent on this team.
I find it incomprehensible how he could honestly believe this unit was in fine shape heading into 2014. Now let me explain why I'm so concerned about this unit heading into 2014 and believe it will be the weak spot on the defense.
Lance Briggs has been a defensive stalwart since being drafted by the team in 2003. When he missed 7 games due to injury last season the defense took an even bigger nosedive than it was already engaged in. With Urlacher no longer around, Briggs is the unquestioned face and leader of the defense. However, he will be 34 this November and his game has started to show some signs of decline. If he goes down with injury again in 2014 for any length of time, potential replacements Jordan Senn and Khaseem Greene inspire no confidence at all.
This will be a heated position battle between last year's 2nd round pick Jonathan Bostic and last year's starter DJ Williams. Regardless of who wins the battle, neither seems primed to play great in the middle in 2014. Williams started 6 games last year and was average at best before going down to injury and is 32 this year. His replacement Bostic failed to show he could handle the position long term as even GM Phil Emery alluded to the fact that he might be better served at weakside linebacker long term. So basically the two guys that failed to even come close to replacing Urlacher now are back for another crack at it.
When you convert someone to a different position two years after drafting them, it's a confession that you failed in your evaluation of that player and are hoping to still save face. 2012 1st round pick Shea McClellin was largely a bust as a 4-3 DE the last two seasons and is now being given the first crack at winning this job. The good news for the team is that he fits their defense better at outside linebacker. The bad news is he is really a 3-4 OLB trying to make it work in a 4-3.
Overall, this unit looks very weak on paper and based off of what I saw from them last season. I firmly believe this will be the glaring weak spot of the Chicago Bears defense in 2014. Sadly, Brian Urlacher isn't walking through that door anytime soon. Heck, what I wouldn't give to even see Hunter Hillenmeyer walk through the doors of Halas Hall and suit up.
Alex Crowe is the lead Chicago Bears writer for Pro Football Spot. You can follow him on Twitter at:
Jeff Schlegel is a Chicago Bears team writer for Pro Football Spot. Make sure to follow him on Twitter at:
Also make sure to check out his NFL videos including a team by team preview of the 2014 season at: http://www.youtube.com/schlegdaddytv