The Chicago Bears' preseason opener showed a brief glimpse of how the team's new defensive line can help mask other issues on the defense, namely at linebacker and safety.
While the Bears have very little figured out at either position, the defensive line still holds the key to a turnaround.
General manager Phil Emery banked on improvement for his defense beginning and ending with the front four, as he spent the majority of the team's salary-cap resources this offseason on signing Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and Jared Allen in free agency.
He then used a second- (Ego Ferguson) and third-round pick (Will Sutton) on big bodies at defensive tackle. Against the Philadelphia Eagles last Friday night, we found our reason why.
The Bears' new-look defensive line rattled and flustered Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles, who threw two interceptions and averaged under five yards per attempt while facing intense pressure.
He finished with a passer rating of 38.4. As a 10-game starter in 2013, Foles threw just two picks and averaged 9.1 yards per attempt. He led the NFL in passer rating at 119.2.
And the Bears accomplished that small feat without the benefit of a quarterback sack.
“I’ve always believed this: It’s not sacking the quarterback, it’s getting him off his spot, making him uncomfortable back there, making him move around," former Bears defensive end Alex Brown told Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune (subscription required). "Some of those plays that the defensive line was making, you get turnovers. All those interceptions they threw, they were under pressure.”
Brown is spot-on in his assessment.
On Foles' first interception, the Bears got pressure off the edges with both Houston and Young. Houston sprung free with a stunt outside after lining up as a defensive tackle. Young powered through a double-team on Foles' blind side and nearly knocked the football out before the throw.
The Bears were fine with the ball coming out, as Foles threw right to safety Ryan Mundy—another of Emery's free-agent pickups—for an easy interception.
But the pick was also set up by the two plays before it.
On second down, Stephen Paea muscled his way inside and forced Foles to get rid of the football in reckless fashion. Lance Briggs came up just short on his diving interception attempt.
A play later, Jeremiah Ratliff worked over All-Pro guard Evan Mathis on the inside. He didn't sack Foles, who stepped up into the pocket, but did draw a rightfully administered holding call.
When 3rd-and-long came, the pressure arrived from a four-man front and a turnover was the final result.
Two series later, Trevor Scott—who played a number of snaps in place of Allen—came unblocked off the defense's right side and forced Foles to throw into double coverage. Sherrick McManis made the interception in front of Eagles tight end Zach Ertz.
Pressure-induced takeaways were mostly absent from Chicago's 2013 season, when the Bears gave up 29.9 points per game and struggled mightily at times in the front four.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the Bears were the second-worst pass-rushing defense in football last season. More than just the front four plays into that rating, but in the 4-3 defense, the majority of pressure comes from up front.
The Chicago defensive line produced just 167 quarterback disruptions—roughly 10 a game—in 2013-14.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks, PFF's top-rated pass-rushing defense, received 187 disruptions from Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril and Clinton McDonald alone. Overall, Seattle had 278 disruptions—over 17 a contest—from its defensive line last season.
|Pass Rush Grade||-28.2||+56.3|
Source: Pro Football Focus
Obviously, seven pressures a game isn't the sole difference between the Bears and Seahawks on defense. Seattle is worlds better in the secondary, especially at safety, and Pete Carroll's linebackers are athletic and well-suited for the modern game.
But without much doubt, Seattle wouldn't be nearly as dominant on defense if not for a suffocating pass rush.
With Houston (Chicago's $35 million investment), Allen (a four-time Pro Bowler and owner of 128.5 career sacks), Young (a still-developing edge-rusher who piled up quarterback disruptions for the Detroit Lions) and Ratliff (a three-time Pro Bowler who came on strong late last season), the Bears hope their own rebuilt pass rush can hide problems elsewhere.
And there are still issues.
What is the key to Chicago's turnaround on defense?
33-year-old Lance Briggs might be the lone linebacker Chicago feels a sense of confidence in at this point.
Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene are young and still growing into their roles, Shea McClellin is moving from defensive end to linebacker and D.J. Williams is 32 and coming off a season-ending pectoral tear.
Christian Jones is intriguing in terms of size and athleticism, but he's also fighting to make the team as an undrafted free agent.
At safety, the Bears are playing any combination of Mundy, M.D. Jennings, Adrian Wilson, Danny McCray and rookie Brock Vereen in hopes of unearthing an answer. Chris Conte, a starter last year, is only now returning from offseason surgery. Major Wright, the other 2013 starter, is now in Tampa Bay.
The defensive line was built by Emery to be the foundation of the defense, and it needs to play that way. He's provided the necessary talent and depth to get it done.
‘‘It’s very, very competitive,’’ Ratliff told Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times. ‘‘With the talent we have, you don’t want to be the last guy, the weakest link. That mentality is going to help everyone play at a high level.’’
If the line plays at a high level, like it did for most of the early goings against the Eagles last Friday night, the Bears can expect to rebound on defense.
How far of a rebound will depend on how well the front four can mask the issues elsewhere.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.