When asked about his Outside linebacker situation in a press conference this past week, Bears Defensive Coordinator Vic Fangio did not exactly heap glowing praise upon his group. There was no ulterior messages being sent to motivate his players nor was there some underlying messages of unhappiness being sent management’s way. No, it was simply the truth being spoken. In an off-season there are only so many bullets you have to kill the beast of insufficiency.
Once the clip was emptied the Bears did manage to take a dagger to the Outside Linebacker position and wound that beast with the drafting of Kylie Fitts, and also signing Undrafted Free Agent Elijah Norris of Shepherd. They also signed former Notre Dame Linebacker Andrew Trumbetti as a priority Free Agent who has the size (6’4″ 263) to compete at Outside Linebacker to hold the Edge as well as battle the monsters they have at Offensive Tackle in the NFL. He also has a good enough 3-cone (7.18) and Short Shuttle time (4.69) the two drills that most identify the capabilities of an Edge Rusher’s success to have a chance.
Whether one, two or all three factor enough to have slayed the beast from the inflicted wounds remains to be seen. However, it’s very likely the Bears have a plan in place to exploit their strengths to generate enough pressure to be formidable enough to put the proper harassment on opposing Quarterbacks to create takeaways. An area the Bears improved on overall last season, but have been woefully lacking in since the arrival of Fangio.
While it’s true that the Bears improved on their overall takeaway total their interception number was again among the lowest in the league and for the third straight season was one of their three lowest totals in team history. They managed just 8 interceptions in all 3 seasons since 2015. A history that includes both 12 and 14 game seasons. They did manage to do better with takeaways overall however. They ranked above league average 1.36 per game but just barely averaging 1.38 per contest in 2017.
Bears were tied for 10th most takeaways with 22 overall and the team turnover differential was exactly at 0 meaning the team broke even in that department. The biggest reason for this is the fact they were tops in the league with 14 fumble recoveries. A statistic difficult and nearly impossible to sustain as it’s hard to predict where that oblong ball will bounce. The Bears were above league average in nearly every important defensive category but were below average in Interceptions (3rd worst), Pressures (28th most), and Red Zone Percentage TDs allowed (21st worst). If the Bears hope to be legitimatly one of the best defenses in the NFL they must improve on these marks. Pressures and interceptions go hand in hand.
So, how do the Bears get this done without top level outside Edge defenders. After all, this is an important aspect of the way Fangio gets pressure on Quarterbacks to throw into congested zones on all levels of the field in coverage as he can keep as many bodies back without having to use more than one extra defender in his blitz scheme. As is common knowledge Fangio rarely blitzes and when he does blitz it’s rarely more than one man. When that blitz does come it’s usually from one of his inside linebackers typically on a delayed blitz or a Nickel Cornerback which he rarely uses. Fangio relies on his stout 3 down linemen occupying blockers freeing his Edge Defenders with one on one blocking and a clear path for his Blitzer(s) to get through typically through the A and B gaps forcing errant throws into coverage. He also uses twists and stunts to free up defenders to generate clear paths unabated to the Quarterback.
Unless Fitts emerges and Floyd evolves and more importantly stays healthy Fangio is going to have to be more creative to get that pressure he needs. The Bears strength lies in the middle of the defense. The Bears are strong at defensive line, Inside Linebacker, Nickel Back, and finally it appears at Safety. With the strength on the Defensive Line the Bears can use the need for offenses to have to double team block opening up rushing Lanes from their Inside linebackers and Nickel and Dime package personnel. Fangio may need to divert from his usual conservative blitz percentage and increase it a bit if Floyd doesn’t improve as a pass rusher &/or stay healthy, and Fitts or anyone else doesn’t emerge as an elite pass rusher.
The personnel is set up for such an uptick too. Aside from the previous mentioned players the Bears should see growth coming from Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris who both showed exceptional ability in flashes and should become more consistent with yet another year under their belts in the league and in the scheme. Floyd has shown the ability to hold the edge and run the stunt game as has Fitts at Utah.
They also have three new drafted Rookies in Roquan Smith, Joel Iyiegbuniwe, and Bilal Nichols who shold be able to assist in generating pressure. Smith is a pretty good Blitzer when sent. He had a total of 14.5 pressures including 6.5 sacks in 2017. Iyiegbuniwe had 3.5 sacks as a Sophomore and 1 last season as a Junior and has the workout numbers you look for in someone who can rush the passer with a 3 cone under 7.1 seconds and a blazing 4.28 Short Shuttle. Nichols had 5 sacks in 2016 and 5.5 last season. If you’re skeptical because of level of competition Nichols dominated both the East-West Shrine game practices as well as the Senior Bowl and had 2 pressures and a sack in the Shrine game and a pressure and a stop in the Senior Bowl game. Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkowski also have shown they are very capable blitzers who have a knack for getting to the Quarterback when sent.
Of course the Bears have returning veterans who played well last season like Sam Acho who had his best year as a pro at OLB adding 3 sacks, and of course the star of the defensive Line Akiem Hicks who has had two amazing seasons adding up pressures and sacks (7 & 8.5) at a high rate and among the top players in all of the NFL as a 3-4 Defensive End.
Than there is the addition of Aaron Lynch who had some minor success under Fangio at San Francisco and Isaiah Irving who Fangio mentioned by name as being impressed with and expecting to take a step up. As we all know by now Fangio is not one to pass out superlatives lightly. Bears also signed Maryland DL Cavon Walker as a UDFA and according to PFF his 11.2 Pass Rushing productivity score was 4th best among interior defensive linemen in the draft. That’s against Big Ten competition too.
So the Bears don’t appear to have an elite Edge Rusher in the form of a Von Miller, Kahlil Mack or even a Demarcus Lawrence but they are not devoid of pieces to get the job done. The Bears have players to work with. It may just need a little more creativity from Fangio than he normally likes to use in his scheme. This is where Fangio needs to earn his money and shows he’s progressive minded enough to stay out of being antiquated in his philosophies and generate the necessary pressure either by development, scheme, or preferably both!