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Fitting Bears Pieces on Defense

How a 3-4 converts to a 4-3, and who could stay or go for the Bears on defense in the new  Matt Eberflus system.

The Bears defense is going in a familiar direction with the hiring of Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus as head coach.

The 4-3 defense used by the Colts under Eberflus has many of the techniques and much of the design of the Lovie Smith cover-2 defenses from 2004-12 in Chicago.

While this is simply another way to get the job done, it will affect which players could be back and which will need to go in the offseason.

Some players don't fit a scheme as speed-reliant as the cover-2 and cover-3 zones the Bears will play in Eberflus' approach.

Those who fit perfectly are edge rushers Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn and Trevis Gipson. Although they are labeled 3-4 edge rushers, they all have had experience playing in a 4-3. Mack played in a 4-3 with the Raiders and his best sack season came in this formation. Almost all of Quinn's career was in the 4-3 as an end, until he came to Chicago. Gipson played from a down position at Tulsa in college before coming to the Bears in 2020 to learn to be a stand-up linebacker.

It's not this way at other positions. A team where offense seems to be such a concern is going to need to drastically alter the defense, as well.

Here is how the personnel need to change for the Bears to implement a 4-3 going forward.

1. Interior Defensive Line

The 300-pound club used by the Bears at defensive end will end. In fact, their entire defensive interior up front could take on a new look.

The ends in a 4-3 are about the size of Robert Quinn or Khalil Mack. The ends in a 3-4 translate more size-wise to defensive tackles in a 4-3 but may not even be a fit in the scheme based on skill set.

Interior defensive linemen in the 3-4 are used to occupy blockers so the linebackers or ends can make the tackle. They are responsible for two gaps at the line.

In the new defense, the tackles must attack upfield in a gap and can make the tackles themselves.

Players like Akiem Hicks, Bilal Nichols and Eddie Goldman appear to be the most likely to go, although Nichols does have potential three-technique skills.

It's not that Hicks can't be a player who attacks the gap. He did it on occasion, and so did Nichols, if they were used as a three-technique in the four-man pass rush. But it's not necessarily their strong points. They were better holding up the line and then attacking. Younger, quicker players off the ball are the ideal fit in a 4-3 front like the Colts have used. Expect they'll look into free agency and the draft for a few defensive tackles.

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Goldman is coming off a poor season after a COVID-19 opt-out. Pro Football Focus graded him 117th out of 121 interior defensive linemen this season. If the Bears cut Goldman with a post-June 1 designation, they would save $8.86 million against the cap while taking only a hit of $2.9 million. If it's before June 1 they save $6.7 million while absorbing a $5.15 million hit.

Hicks is a free agent. So is Nichols. It could be a case where all three interior starters are gone by next season.

2. Linebacker

Roquan Smith is so athletic, he fits in either type of system. However, he probably fits better into this 4-3 as an outside or weakside linebacker than the Mike or middle linebacker. Think of it like this: Smith is more like Lance Briggs than Brian Urlacher. He is a downhill playmaker, more of a striker than someone who patrols the middle. He's not overly tall and the Cover-2 operated best with a taller rangy middle like Urlacher dropping to assist safeties or handle tight ends in short routes. Because of his speed, Smith could do it. It's just better use of his ability to disrupt if he is not the Mike.

Beyond Smith, the Bears might not have a single linebacker who can play the off-ball position. Speed is of the essence in this scheme and 30-something linebackers like Danny Trevathan or Alec Ogletree lack the ability to make that adjustment. The backups are no better in this regard. Christian Jones was only acquired from Detroit because he had played in the 3-4 in Chicago in the past. Joel Iyiegbuniwe is a Ryan Pace fourth-round pick who didn't pan out. The Bears need to draft and sign middle and off-ball linebackers.

3. Secondary

Speed is key. Eddie Jackson should love the cover-2 emphasis. He'll be able to play a deep half and burn to the ball. The old Jackson might resurface if he's not being moved around much and gets to field the ball. His problem isn't scheme but making the effort.

They'd need another safety to start alongside Jackson, anyway, because 30-something Tashaun Gipson is a free agent

At cornerback, the Bears used plenty of cover-3 already. They're likely to be cloaking coverage a little less than in Sean Desai's 3-4, but however you slice it they drastically need cornerback help. Now they just need cornerbacks with better zone coverage skill than man-to-man. The only cornerbacks who figure to be secure in their spots are Jaylon Johnson and possibly Thomas Graham Jr.

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