For years, the Lovie Smith-led Chicago Bears used a relentless pass rush from the defensive line, athletic, sideline-to-sideline linebackers and an opportunistic secondary to continually rank among the NFL's best defenses.
That formula has hit a serious snag in 2013, the first without Smith at the helm.
While the secondary under Marc Trestman is still turning over offenses at a league-best rate, the Bears have seen their once-dominant pass rush wither into a shell of its former self. And unfortunately for Chicago, the issues in pressuring opposing quarterbacks are deep and without a clear-cut answer.
"We're trying to find ways to improve our techniques and fundamentals and coordinate different ways of getting to the quarterback," Trestman said this week, via Larry Mayer of the Bears' official site.
Chicago's pass-rushing numbers this season are strikingly poor, but they're also indicative of how badly this defense has struggled.
|Sacks Per Game||1.3||31st|
|PFF Pass Rush Grade||-13.6||26th|
Source: Pro Football Focus
If the Bears keep up their current pace—roughly 1.3 sacks per game—the 2013 defense would come close to setting a new franchise low for sacks in a season. The 2003 Bears had just 18; this team is on track for only 21.
On a 4-3 defense like Chicago's, the origin of any pass-rushing problem likely starts with the defensive line. Again, the numbers back up such a claim.
Of the Bears' eight sacks, only four have come from the defensive line: Julius Peppers with one, Nate Collins one, Corey Wootton one, Shea McClellin 0.5 and Stephen Paea 0.5. Linebackers Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams lead the team with two sacks each.
Only a season ago, the Bears received 38 of their 41 sacks from the defensive line. Peppers led the way with 11.5, but he had help from Israel Idonije (7.5) Wootton (7.0) and Henry Melton (6.0). McClellin and Paea both had 2.5 each.
Yet therein lies a major part of the problem.
Idonije bolted town and signed a new deal in Detroit. Melton lasted just two games before tearing his ACL. Only weeks later, Collins tore his ACL. Paea has also battled injury, forcing Wootton to play snaps inside. McClellin, a former first-round pick now in his second season, has been a major disappointment as a 4-3 defensive end.
The talent level and depth on the defensive line that was abundant in 2012 is severely depleted in 2013, and the remaining pieces have simply been unable to compensate.
Peppers and Wootton, who came into the season as the starting defensive ends, have struggled to maintain consistent pressure.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the two have just 27 total pressures (Wootton 15, Peppers 12) over 343 combined pass-rushing snaps. For comparison's sake, consider that Robert Quinn—PFF's top-rated 4-3 defensive end this season—has 34 pressures over just 193 pass rushes. Ndamukong Suh, a defensive tackle, has 32 over 241.
|Snaps||Pass Rush||Sacks||QB Hits||Hurries|
Source: Pro Football Focus
Only complicating matters has been the slow development of McClellin, who entered the NFL athletic but undersized. Many thought he would be better utilized as a 3-4 linebacker. Especially this season, the Bears have provided McClellin with different responsibilities and pass-rushing avenues, but the results have been disappointing.
Over 169 pass rushes, McClellin has but three quarterback hits and seven hurries. At PFF, no member of the Bears' front seven has a worse overall grade than McClellin's minus-10.2.
Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said he'll continue to try different ways of getting McClellin comfortable rushing the passer, including in stand-up roles.
“He has a history of doing that and playing on his feet in a two-point, at different positions and playing in space,” Tucker said, via Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. “He’s comfortable doing that, and it’s very important that you try to put guys in a position to be successful, and that’s what we’ll try to do.”
It would also be impossible to discount how injuries have devastated Chicago's overall ability to pressure the quarterback.
Despite experiencing some struggles early on, a healthy Melton represented the prototypical defensive tackle for the Bears' 4-3 front. Quick, strong and physical, Melton could split double-teams and create the kind of inside disruption every good pass rush needs. His 37 total pressures in 2012 were fifth among all defensive tackles.
“You can’t replace a Henry Melton," Briggs told Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, shortly after it was believed Melton tore his ACL. "He is an elite D-lineman. He will be missed."
Only 15 days later, Collins—who was serving as Melton's fill-in at defensive tackle—tore his ACL. Paea, also a starter, has battled turf toe off and on for the better part of the last month.
Will the Bears eventually get their pass-rushing woes turned around?
The injuries have meant significant playing time for the likes of Zach Minter, Landon Cohen and David Bass. Wootton, a defensive end, has also had to shift inside to compensate.
The Bears then received another big blow to the pass rush when Williams, an effective blitzing linebacker, tore his pectoral muscle and went on injured reserve.
All the problems have created a perfect storm for the Bears' struggling pass rush.
The drop in talent level from one year to the next resulted in a rash of ineffectiveness from the remaining players. And as those remaining players have suffered season-altering injuries, the ineffectiveness has only magnified.
There is no easy fix. Melton, Collins and Williams aren't returning. There are no free agents capable of stepping in and solving all the problems.
What you see now is likely what you're going to get for the rest of 2013, and that's worrisome for a defense that could really use the pressure up front.