Bears Preview: Change May Do No Good
Three years ago the Chicago Bears might have won the NFC Championship had Jay Cutler not torn his MCL. Two years ago they were 7-3 before losing Cutler to a broken thumb (and, later, running back Matt Forte to a sprained knee). Jerry Angelo, who’d been the GM for 11 years, was fired shortly after they finished that season 8-8. Last year the Bears started 7-1, finished 10-6 and were headed for a wild-card spot until Minnesota’s Week 17 victory wedged them out in a tiebreaker. After the season, nine-year coach Lovie Smith was fired.
The Bears hardly have the typical track record of a team in need of new direction. If fate were a fraction kinder in just one of the last three seasons, Smith (and probably Angelo) would still be there. So is this an organization run by impatient leaders? Or did owner Virginia McCaskey and team president Ted Phillips recognize that the Bears had what renowned business author Jim Collins might identify as a “good” to “great” problem?
We could spend all day debating this, but it’s a moot point. Second-year general manager Phil Emery and first-year coach Marc Trestman are running the show now. We’ll focus on how that show will look.
Trestman was an unusual hiring. He made his name as Oakland’s quarterback coach/offensive coordinator at the height of the Rich Gannon years. His last NFL job was as Miami’s assistant head coach in 2004. That lasted one season. Trestman then had a two-year stint as offensive coordinator at North Carolina State—the last team of his that has faced a fourth down. From 2008 to ’12 Trestman was coach of the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. There, his innovative offense helped win back-to-back Grey Cups, which drew the interest of a Bears franchise whose offenses perennially are overshadowed by its defenses.
Often a new coach this far off the radar will inherit a team in the early stages of a long-term rebuilding project. But these Bears are primed to win right now. Their defense is built around 30-something stars Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and Charles Tillman. All are still vibrant, though the retirement of their chief, Brian Urlacher, is like a metaphorical clock ticking in Solider Field.
On Trestman’s side of the ball, the stars are 29-year-old receiver Brandon Marshall, 27-year-old running back Matt Forte and a quarterback who seems like a developing project but is in fact 30. Cutler is in his prime, and undoubtedly Trestman will try to change him. How that goes will determine the immediate fate of this iconic franchise.
Over the years it’s become a hobby of NFL analysts to speculate about Jay Cutler’s relationship with his main offensive coach. It’s no different this year. Previous coordinators Mike Martz and Mike Tice had some edge to their alpha personalities. Cutler did not jibe well with Martz and at times was not even on speaking terms with Tice. The word on Marc Trestman is he has a soft-spoken but firm disposition—the type that comes from a blend of self-assurance and humility.
Even those around Cutler and Trestman on a daily basis probably can’t say how their two personalities will mesh. (If people were easy to figure out, football—and the rest of the world—would be, too.) But we can guess at how Cutler’s playing personality might work with Trestman; playing personalities have a way of speaking plainly.
Cutler’s playing personality is that of a gifted, confident (cocky) loose cannon. It did not work well in Martz’s rigid, details-oriented Air Coryell system. Trestman runs a West Coast-style spread that is much different from Martz’s. But like Martz’s scheme, Trestman’s is also tightly managed and predicated on fine details, such as quick-timed progressions and pre-snap reads. This has never been Cutler’s strong suit.
A powerful arm and a natural passer’s athleticism have often allowed Cutler to get away with sloppy mechanics and wild chance-taking. There have been plenty of awe-striking highlights—and lowlights. Trestman, seeking a middle ground that’s tilted more toward the highlight side of things, will push Cutler to be sounder fundamentally. The system won’t work otherwise.
It’s anyone’s guess whether Cutler will reject these demands or accept them. He should at least be convivial about what the new system means for his protection. Cutler understandably resented the incessant deep drops of Martz’s system—and those of Tice’s, even though Tice vowed to remove deep dropbacks from his playbook—because he knew Chicago’s pitiful offensive line couldn’t block.
Maybe Phil Emery realized what most GMs don’t: The best remedy for bad pass-blocking is not more expensive linemen, it’s a passing system based on quick timing, like Trestman’s. Then again, Emery did also carry on Chicago’s tradition of investing heavily in the O-line. He spent a guaranteed $22.5 million on free-agent left tackle Jermon Bushrod and used his first-round pick on Oregon’s Kyle Long, who is projected to start at right guard. Neither lineman is without flaws. Bushrod’s shaky pass-blocking in New Orleans often had to be hidden by the play designs; Long played just 11 games as a senior at Oregon, with only four starts. It’s fair to assume he’s raw (which is why James Brown may initially start over him). That said, Bushrod and Long are both quick and nimble. In this system, they should be proficient run-blockers and able to get out in front on a variety of screens.
Aside from Roberto Garza at center, the rest of this line has been reshuffled. Former Jet Matt Slauson is the new left guard. Fourth-year pro J’Marcus Webb is moving back to right tackle, where his slow drop-step will hopefully be a little less problematic. Still, no matter what system you run, five-step dropbacks and even some seven-step drops are inevitable in the NFL. Webb’s immense struggles in these scenarios will get him targeted by sub-package defenses. Fortunately, new offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer learned just about every conceivable way to help overmatched edge blockers during his four years coaching New Orleans’s line. Kromer will have to work hard with Webb; the other options at right tackle—Jonathan Scott, Eben Britton, and Jordan Mills, a fifth-round rookie from Louisiana Tech—are not enticing.
While Kromer will focus on the blocking and run game, Trestman will focus on building better ball distribution in the passing attack. It was painfully obvious by the end of last season that Cutler did not trust any receiver other than Brandon Marshall. The first team All-Pro was targeted on a league-high 38.4% of his starting quarterback’s passes. His 118 receptions—tied for 10th-most ever in a season—were 74 more than Chicago’s next leading pass-catcher, Matt Forte, which was by far the NFL’s biggest gap between two top receivers.
Trestman must put the ancillary receivers in their best spots to succeed. He’s not working with as much versatility as most spread coaches. No. 2 wideout Alshon Jeffery is built almost strictly to play outside. The previous regime started grooming Jeffery as a vertical threat, but his unpolished mechanics made him largely ineffective in that role. Jeffery did, however, become a markedly more comfortable player as the season wore on, creating optimism that he can be more than just a possession target.
Third in the pecking order will be tight end Martellus Bennett. He is an upgrade over the butter-handed Kellen Davis, but there’s a reason he’s on his third team in three years. A strong upper-body makes Bennett a good in-line blocker and able route runner off the line of scrimmage, but the agility isn’t quite there to consistently win from the slot or out wide. The only true flex-type tight end on the roster, in fact, is undrafted third-year pro Kyle Adams, and he’s really more of an H-back.
Off the bench, Earl Bennett is dramatically more effective inside than outside (61.4% of his career receptions have come from the slot). When he’s not battling injuries (which hasn’t been often enough the last two years), Bennett’s one of Cutler’s favorite short-area targets on decisive downs. The No. 4 receiver will be determined in training camp, as Trestman has already said Devin Hester is going back to just handling return duties.
The smooth-gliding Matt Forte has always been a major facet of Chicago’s passing game. That will increase under Trestman, who as coordinator in Oakland in 2002 saw his running back, Charlie Garner, catch 91 balls for 941 yards. Forte’s backup, Michael Bush, is also capable of catching passes out of the backfield. His touches in the ground game may decrease a bit. Unlike Forte, Bush’s lateral agility, though better than you’d guess a 245-pounder’s would be, is just a little too stiff for a spread system.
To those who question Trestman’s running a speed-based offense on the mushy Soldier Field turf: The classic Cover 2 so long run by Chicago’s celebrated defense might be the most speed-oriented scheme in football. This season its longtime centerpiece, Brian Urlacher, will begin a new life filled with longs breakfasts, Bermuda shorts and lots of golf. Tony Dungy disciple Lovie Smith is also not working in 2013. But the zone scheme will carry on in Chicago, with brawny 30-year-old ex-Bronco D.J. Williams at middle linebacker and former Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker orchestrating the game plans.
Though Tucker’s predecessor championed the Cover 2, this Bears defense over the past two seasons had actually started to diversify its once-vanilla zones. The emergence of safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte, who can both play deep in space or close to the line, allowed the Bears to start rotating to more single-high coverages and other disguise concepts. Similar to what longtime Cover 2 subscriber Pete Carroll has done in Seattle, the Bears at times played press-man with their corners outside. This was great for Charles Tillman, who has never had outstanding speed but is physical and mechanically adroit. Tillman followed the opponents’ biggest (which was often their best) receiver around while Tim Jennings, an underrated tackler and agile short-area mover, followed the smaller targets. Together the two were responsible for 22 turnover opportunities (Tillman had three interceptions and an astounding 10 forced fumbles, Jennings a league-high nine picks). They went to the Pro Bowl representing a secondary that ranked fourth in net yards allowed per attempt.
Tucker, an amiable players’ coach, will likely give his veteran stars plenty of say in the scheme this season. The foundation of it will still be zone. In fact, a lot of Chicago’s man-coverage last year actually began as off-coverage zone concepts that only turned into man because of how the offense’s routes unfolded. Strong, experienced zone defensive teams like the Bears—or the Steelers, as another example—understand that zone coverages are not designed to guard areas of the field, they’re designed to guard areas of the field where offensive targets are likely to be.
The better the back seven defenders are at matching up to targets in their zones, the better the defense. This is what made Urlacher great; he had tremendous instincts when it came to carrying and passing off his coverage between the numbers. Physically, D.J. Williams is comparable to Urlacher. But even with his experience playing a litany of positions in Denver’s varied schemes, Williams might not have Urlacher’s feel for pass defense.
Williams’s life will be easier playing alongside Lance Briggs, who is still fast and takes great angles to ballcarriers and passing lanes in the flats. Of course, no matter how well Williams plays, his stay in the Windy City could be short, as behind him is second-round rookie Jon Bostic, who figures to be Urlacher’s heir. The Bears also drafted Khaseem Greene in round four. He’ll likely push for a starting outside job down the road, but for now the strongside spot will be filled by James Anderson, who was reliable in Carolina’s zone scheme.
Anderson likely won’t see a ton of snaps given that Briggs and Williams are the ones expected to play nickel. Under Lovie Smith, the Bears almost always kept both Briggs and Urlacher on the field even if the offense was in four-wide. The new regime may not be inclined to do that, which means the depth at cornerback—which has long been iffy—is suddenly more important. Kelvin Hayden has some quick-twitch and should be fine as the nickel. He’s a better ball hawk when lined up on the outside, but coaches would rather see him over the slot—where there are more true man-to-man responsibilities—than one of the playmaking starters. Behind Hayden, it will be a battle between Zackary Bowman (whose specialty over the years has been getting demoted) and ex-Texan Sherrick McManis.
Forced turnovers can be a flaky mistress, but the Bears are willing to hinge their success on them because they believe their explosive defensive line can get offenses playing hurried. Just thinking about blocking Julius Peppers can panic some offensive players. Peppers’s sack numbers in Chicago have not been jaw-dropping, but his imposing strength and speed against the run, plus his general destructiveness as a multi-tooled pass-rusher, have made a huge impact.
On passing downs Peppers will likely align wherever he thinks the most favorable one-on-one matchup can be had. Expect last year’s first-round pick, Shea McClellin, to be similarly peripatetic. McClellin has great suppleness and quickness. If he can stay healthy, he’ll have much more impact than his 2.5 rookie sacks suggest. McClellin is more capable as a base 4-3 end than people realize—especially if Peppers aligns on the strong side and the youngster can play the weak—but expect the bigger and adequately athletic Corey Wootton to get most of the first- and second-down snaps.
Inside, Henry Melton has blossomed into one of the best gap-shooters in football. He also has the lateral strength and leverage to hold ground against double teams. Next to him, Stephen Paea is a very physical phone booth fighter who gets off the ball well. He’ll start ahead of undrafted fourth-year pro Nate Collins, who is quietly becoming a notable flash player.
The Bears owe much of their success over the years to special teams. It’s a unit that remains strong, with kicker Robbie Gould being a safe bet to make more than 83% of his field goals for an eighth consecutive season and punter Adam Podlesh coming off a year in which opponents returned only 25 of his 81 punts, averaging just 3.4 yards per return. (This suggests Podlesh gets good height on his boots but could maybe stand to get more distance.) And, of course, there’s still Devin Hester handling returns. He had a down year in 2012, but opposing coaches will fear him enough to compromise field position.
Same pieces, different puzzle. There are a lot of ifs regarding whether Cutler can flourish in Trestman’s system. This, plus the small possibility of the fervid but aging defense suddenly hitting a wall, makes the Bears a risky pick.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.