Ever since Brian Urlacher's retirement following the 2012 season, the Chicago Bears have struggled to find a suitable replacement for the eight-times Pro Bowler in the middle of the field at linebacker.
The Bears are shifting over to a 3-4 defense this season, and instead of needing to find one linebacker to man the middle of the field, they need to find two who can play inside linebacker in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's scheme.
Christian Jones, Mason Foster, Jon Bostic and Shea McClellin are all vying for a starting spot, but instead of naming two specific starters, the Bears could entertain the idea of using a rotation at the position.
In a standard 4-3 scheme, the Mike linebacker is asked to play against both the run and the pass, but the inside linebackers in a 3-4 defense play two different roles.
A 3-4 defense still uses a Mike linebacker, but the other inside linebacker position is called the Jack linebacker. Earlier this offseason, CBSChicago.com's Dan Durkin explained in general terms what Fangio wants from his two inside linebackers.
"The profile of both players is quite similar—dependable, durable, physical players with agility to quickly change direction and be explosive when attacking lead blockers in the hole," Durkin wrote. "They need to have high football IQs to coordinate the defense from play to play."
The Mike linebacker in a 3-4 defense is expected to be more of a run-stopper, while the Jack is viewed as a jack-of-all-trades linebacker. The Mike has responsibilities against the run, but he also has to be able to drop into coverage.
The Jack linebacker has more freedom to freelance and attack the quarterback as a pass-rusher, but he also has to be a sound run defender.
Foster and Bostic are both fits at the Mike linebacker position because of their ability to be downhill run defenders, while Jones and McClellin are good fits at the Jack because of their athleticism and experience rushing quarterbacks.
"This defense fits most of our guys' skill sets and it is very versatile," Jones said earlier this offseason, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. "I like that a lot. We're excited to see what we can do."
Instead of locking themselves into one player at the Mike and one player at the Jack, the Bears could get a bit creative with their linebacker pairings based on what type of offense they are going up against.
Versus Run-Oriented Offenses
Many teams have gotten away from trying to pound the football in the running game in recent years, but the Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys proved last season that teams can still be successful when they place an emphasis on running the football.
During Marc Trestman's tenure as Chicago's head coach from 2013 to 2014, the Bears were one of the league's worst teams against the run.
|Bears Defense Against the Run Under Trestman|
|Year||Yards Allowed/Game (Rank)||Rushing Touchdowns (Rank)||First Downs Allowed Via the Run (Rank)||20-yard Runs Allowed (Rank)|
|2013||161.4 (Most in the NFL)||22 (2nd Most)||147 (Most in the NFL)||18 (2nd Most)|
|2014||112.7 (16th Most)||12 (15th Most)||78 (28th Most)||10 (14th Most)|
When the Bears square off against Seattle in Week 3, they could use Foster at the Mike and Jones at the Jack.
Foster struggled playing in Tampa Bay's Cover 2 defense under former Bears head coach Lovie Smith last season because of how much ground he was asked to cover in the passing game, but he is a good fit at the Mike against running teams because of his intelligence and ability to read and react to what is going on in front of him.
"I don't think people realize how smart he is," former Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik said about Foster, according to Ross Jones of Fox Sports. "He really does understand defenses. He can make the calls, get guys lined up. That's a very valuable thing when you look at middle linebackers."
Jones showed flashes of his potential as an undrafted rookie last season, and his athleticism and ability to move into space makes him an ideal candidate to man the Jack linebacker spot against a run-oriented offense.
He needs to do a better job of working his way through traffic, but he is a hard-hitting linebacker who has all the tools to make an impact against the run.
Versus Pass-Oriented Offenses
The Packers have won nine of the last 10 meetings between Green Bay and Chicago, and they averaged 36.5 points per game against Chicago in their four meetings during Trestman's tenure as head coach.
Fangio went 4-0 against Green Bay during his time as defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers, and his unit was successful because it was able to slow down the run with just its defensive linemen and linebackers.
Most teams get burned by Green Bay in the passing game when they ask a safety to play up in the box against the run. When a team forces its free safety to cover the back half of the field because the strong safety is up in the box, quarterback Aaron Rodgers knows to target the receiver who is going up against single coverage.
If the Bears want to keep Rodgers at bay—and slow down the running game—they could use a combination of Foster and Bostic at inside linebacker.
Foster and Bostic both move well laterally and have the ability to attack downhill in the running game. Bostic struggled against the run during his rookie season, and according to Pro Football Focus, he finished 2013 with a minus-14.0 grade against the run. Last season, he missed three games through injury, but he finished the year with a plus-4.6 grade against the run.
Per Pro Football Focus, Bostic played a total of 153 snaps against the run last season and finished with 24 tackles.
From where he was when his rookie season began to where he finished last season, Bostic showed tremendous improvement against the run. According to Arthur Arkush of ChicagoFootball.com, Bostic did not participate in Chicago's OTAs because of a back injury, but the Bears expect him to be ready for training camp.
If Bostic can shake the injury bug that has plagued him over the course of the last several months, he has a chance to earn a starting role against teams that like to throw the football all over the field.
Foster and Bostic both have experience defending the pass and are athletic enough to keep up with speedy running backs and tight ends in the passing game, particularly in the middle of the field.
Jones is another intriguing option in this scenario because of his ability to get after the quarterback, but teams often get burned by Rodgers when they try to utilize extra pass-rushers. Additionally, Jones struggled against the pass last season and needs to improve his technique in pass coverage.
Versus a Young Quarterback
Young quarterbacks hate to be pressured in the pocket, and the Bears have a pair of inside linebackers who could create chaos in the middle of the field this season.
The Bears will face second-year quarterbacks Derek Carr (Week 4) and Teddy Bridgewater (Weeks 8 and 15) this season, and they will also go up against this year's No. 1 overall pick, Jameis Winston, in Week 16.
If the Bears want to put pressure on those young quarterbacks, they could use Jones and McClellin at inside linebacker.
Jones moved all around the field while at Florida State, and he blitzed the quarterback from all three linebacker positions, as well as from defensive end. He is terrific in space, has good closing speed and knows how to use his hands to get past blockers.
He finished last season with two sacks, and Fangio praised the young linebacker this offseason.
“[Jones has] got good size (6'3", 240 lbs),” Fangio said, according to Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. “He’s got good athletic ability. He’s a young, eager guy, and football’s important to him. He’s got a bright future if he can develop.”
Jones' athleticism and physicality gives him the ability to line up at either the Mike or the Jack linebacker spot, and he can be leaned on to slow down the run if the Bears opt to use McClellin alongside him to create pressure.
McClellin played outside linebacker at Boise State, but after he was taken by the Bears in the first round of the 2012 draft, Chicago opted to move him to 4-3 defensive end.
He struggled to adjust to his new position, and the team moved him to strong-side linebacker last season. He showed flashes of his potential at linebacker last year, and Chicago's new coaching staff decided to move him to inside linebacker this offseason.
‘‘I thought highly of him when he came out of Boise State, [but] he was more of an outside linebacker in that scheme,’’ Fox said about McClellin, according to Jahns. ‘‘Right now, putting him inside, we’ll see how he does there, see how he progresses, because he is a good athlete. He does have good size (6'3", 245 lbs), good length."
McClellin needs to get stronger at the point of attack as a pass-rusher, but he is athletic and works well in space.
If the Bears want to apply pressure to a young quarterbacks such as Carr, Bridgewater or Winston from the inside linebacker position this season, the starting duo of Jones and McClellin is the team's best option.
Rotating the inside linebackers may be a bit unconventional, but the Bears could find success this season by putting their best linebacker duo out on the field based on the type of offense they are facing that week.
Statistical information and measurables courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Matt Eurich is a Chicago Bears featured columnist for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America.