Mel Tucker’s defense is the biggest question mark heading into the Chicago Bears' 2014 season. It wasn’t good last year, and it didn't look good in the preseason.
While you would think the Buffalo Bills would be an easy matchup for Marc Trestman and Co., Tucker’s defense simply cannot be trusted. All the Bears need is for the defense to be slightly better than it was last season. And that improvement needs to take place sooner rather than later, as the Bears’ early schedule isn't the friendliest.
If you want a silver lining, though, the Bills’ mediocre offense will be a great test for these Bears, old and new.
The Bears will be facing a very unaccomplished Bills offense. Second-year quarterback EJ Manuel has looked very bust-like since being drafted in the first round. His preseason performance has left Bills fans scratching their heads, wondering if Manuel is the guy who can lead their team back to the postseason.
The Bills front office clearly has some doubts given Kyle Orton just was handed a two-year deal worth $11 million, along with a $3 million signing bonus. Oh yeah, team captains just were named Tuesday, and Manuel, the supposed franchise quarterback, wasn't given a C.
But maybe now he’ll have a chip on his shoulder come kickoff against the Bears. You never really know what will make someone’s light turn on.
The key for Chicago to beating Manuel is the same as any other quarterback: pressure. Not blitzing, per se, just pressure. Be in the backfield. Get hands in his face.
Manuel’s inexperience at reading the field has turned him into a checkdown passer. Sixty-five percent of Manuel’s throws are either behind the line of scrimmage or within nine yards of it, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription needed). While that number isn't all that surprising, seeing it on film, more often than not, Manuel was finding his checkdown before most of his receivers even made it out of their routes.
But Manuel has the ability to move the line with his legs. He ranked No. 12 in the NFL last season in the number of times he scrambled out of the pocket after dropping back to pass. Many of the names ahead of him on that list had in upward of 275-300 more dropbacks than Manuel. So that’s definitely something to keep an eye on come Sunday.
If you watched the Chicago defense during the preseason, you saw the linemen overplaying the edge, losing contain, venturing away from their individual assignments, missing tackles. This simply cannot happen Sunday against a quarterback who can and will move the pocket at a moment’s notice. Remember what happened in the preseason against Russell Wilson, to the tune of 202 passing yards and two touchdowns on 15-of-20 passing with another 28 yards and a touchdown on the ground. It was really ugly.
Another way to keep things tough for Manuel is to eliminate the rushing attack of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.
Spiller technically is the starter, but the Bills operate a two-back system. Neither back even hit the 1,000-yard mark last season; the duo gained 1,820 yards combined. They run equally well between the tackles and at the edges. And they both have the ability to break tackles for long runs or runs after the catch—and we've already established Manuel’s propensity to check down.
The addition of rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins could make things interesting for the Bears secondary. Buffalo’s first-round selection generated a ton of buzz during the offseason and into training camp and the preseason. For good reason, too, as he is one of the more explosive pass-catchers in the league—before even playing a regular-season game.
Cornerback Charles Tillman told ESPN Chicago on Tuesday that he and Tim Jennings likely would play left side, right side against the Bills, with Jennings on the left and Tillman on the right. So Watkins will see a variety of looks in his first NFL action. That’s if he even plays.
Watkins has been battling a rib injury since Week 2 of the preseason, and his status for Sunday still is up in the air. Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Mike Williams are behind the rookie on the depth chart. That means Buffalo would be left with a bunch of No. 2/3 receivers. Two words: Not good (for the Bills). OK, five words.
The Bears’ game plan here needs to be one of simplicity, and it starts with the defensive line. With what looks like four new faces in the starting lineup—Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Ryan Mundy, Danny McCray— Tucker should opt for an attack that focuses on discipline and defensive-line pressure.
|New faces on defense (*starter)|
|DE||Lamarr Houston *|
|DE||Jared Allen *|
|SS||Ryan Mundy *|
|FS||Danny McCray *|
The linebacking unit and secondary still are a mess, though. So, again, it starts with the defensive line. It must keep the Bills from penetrating the aging Lance Briggs, the position-less bust we call Shea McClellin and the two below-average safeties, Mundy and McCray, who basically won the job by default.
The unit as a whole was historically bad last season. But there now are new faces involved, ones whom general manager Phil Emery paid a lot of money. There’s some reason to believe the defense might not be a liability anymore. As long as the defensive line plays better, the linebackers and secondary will look better. Chicago should be able to play average football and still win this game.