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Quick Turnaround in Matt Eberflus' Past

The Colts made a very rapid, effective switch under Matt Eberflus from a 3-4 to the classic 4-3 with cover-2 pass coverage, and now the Bears will hope to do the same.

With the conversion the Bears defense is about to make, they might want to consider re-signing free agent backup player Margus Hunt.

After all, Hunt just went through the same conversion process in Indianapolis under Matt Eberflus as defensive coordinator as the Bears are about to undertake under Eberflus the head coach.

It looks like a daunting task, altering defensive approaches from 3-4 to 4-3. It can be, but it depends on the athletic abilities of those converting. 

Eberflus had the Colts make this conversion virtually overnight.

With this system, many of the same goals exist for the Bears defense in 2022 as in their 3-4 system in 2021, such as creating turnovers. The difference is how they get there.

It's been a while, so if you're not a longtime Bears follower you won't remember the problems and strengths with the defensive scheme brought back to the team by Eberflus—a defense very similar to one the Bears used most of Brian Urlacher's career.

The front attacks more in gaps between the blockers in Eberflus' scheme and the emphasis on cover-2 and cover-3 means safeties might be in better position to make plays on the longer passes, but the coverage overall could be hurt with slants, skinny posts or "cover-2 beaters" along the sideline and between the cornerback and safety.

The goal of creating more turnovers really seems to be possible. The Bears had problems sustaining this in Vic Fangio's 3-4 style defense, the one used by Sean Desai in 2021. Chuck Pagano also used it with the Bears and when he was head coach for the Colts just before Eberflus' defense came to Indianapolis.

It is here where the effect of Eberflus' conversion is best seen and what he would hope can happen in Chicago.

What the Colts Did

The Colts took most of the 3-4 players and got them using the techniques the 4-3 uses. They then filled in the gap at key positions with new standout players who better fit their needs.

Considering the different techniques used in the schemes in coverage and up front, it sounds like a monumental, multiyear task. It wasn't for Eberflus. 

The Colts ranked 30th in points allowed and in yardage allowed, 20th in takeaways, 26th against the run and had only 25 sacks in the final year of their 3-4 defense under Pagano in 2017. 

In the very first season under Eberflus in a 4-3, they improved to 10th in scoring defense, 11th in yardage allowed, eighth against the run and 16th against the pass. But they also improved from 20th in takeaways to 10th, and unlike in their 3-4 they sustained this level. They finished top 10 in takeaways each of the last four years, placing 10th each of Eberflus' first two seasons, then fifth and second in 2021 with 33.

The Bears, in their Fangio-style defense, spiked with 36 takeaways in 2018 but for six other years in which they used that 3-4 they averaged only 17.1 takeaways with a high of 22.

The Colts went about the rebuild by finding those capable of playing a different way, and adding players at some key positions in their scheme. The key positions in the 4-3 are the three-technique tackle or under tackle, the weakside linebacker, the middle linebacker and both defensive ends. 

The Bears shouldn't have a problem with defensive end because their top three edge rushers have played defensive end in the 4-3 and did it well—Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn and also Trevis Gipson in college. One difference is the ends in the 4-3 need to be more stout against the run. Whether they can get Quinn to buy into this is a question, while Mack has always been one of the better Bears run stoppers when healthy.

What the Bears Lack

The real key position on the line is the three-technique defensive tackle and sadly for the Bears, these do not grow on trees. 

DeForest Buckner played three-technique tackle for Eberflus in Indianapolis, a position shading the guard's outside shoulder. At 6-foot-7, 295 pounds, he's not too heavy and gets quickly into gaps. Bilal Nichols might be viewed as someone like this on the Bears, but Nichols has played everything from three-technique to nose in the 3-4 and is versatile. He is not dominant like a very good three-technique tackle. The Bears could use one if they can find one in free agency—like Indianapolis did with the Buckner. It's not easy in the draft to find one without a first-round draft pick, so free agency might be their route.

When Eberflus took over the Colts, he lacked a play-making weakside linebacker. They found one right away in the 2018 draft with Darius Leonard. He's one inch taller, the same weight as Roquan Smith and a very comparable skill set. The Bears definitely won't need to locate their playmaker at weakside linebacker because Smith will be ideal. 

Eberflus needed a classic 4-3 middle linebacker because the Colts' leading tackler at inside linebacker had been former Bears linebacker Jonathan Bostic. They had Anthony Walker on the roster and turned him into the Mike backer. He finished first or second in tackles for three years and then went to Cleveland. 

The Bears need to come up with someone who can play the position as their new Brian Urlacher. It's unlikely the roster holds this answer as it did for the Colts because the others on their roster inside have not stepped up as capable of starting or they are too old to switch and play this style. Joel Iyiegbuniwe and Caleb Johnson fit the former category and both Alec Ogletree and Danny Trevathan the latter.

The Colts gradually changed their secondary to players more suited to their coverage techniques, with cornerbacks using outside leverage to force receivers back in toward the middle of the field while playing two-deep or three-deep with safeties. The defensive backs they had did a decent job for two years until the made more changes.

Bears Are Better Situated for Changeover

Over the years the Bears might go more toward defensive edges who are heavier than Quinn, who is 245 pounds. They might need to use Quinn even a situational pass rusher at his size. They will need to get better at cornerback anyway. And they'll definitely need to find new inside linebackers. 

However, they have more ingredients on the roster for the conversion than the Colts had in 2018. The Bears finished sixth in yards allowed last year and some may question the wisdom of such a change after that finish. 

It's the pass rush, the turnovers and stopping the run which count more than yardage. The Bears could find they can achieve this quickly under Eberflus based on his history and the talent they have available, with a few additions.

What the Bears will find is any defensive change goes better with their own offense committing fewer turnovers. 

Complementary football is winning football.  

A good running game and more effective downfield passing work best with any defense a team uses, but that's a process to study for the new offensive coordinator, and at the moment there isn't one of those.

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