UA-59049186-1 2022 Chicago Bears Preview: Defense and Special Teams - Good if it Goes

2022 Chicago Bears Preview: Defense and Special Teams

Give the man his flowers. And his money. [Image: Joe Robbins, Getty Images]

The Chicago Bears went through three defensive coordinators during Matt Nagy’s four-year tenure. Losing Vic Fangio was expected as he finally got a shot to be a head coach. Chuck Pagano took over and sucked. Sean Desai, who had been around since the Trestman days got a shot and was just kinda meh.

Enter a steadying presence. Enter a man reminiscent of Lovie Smith, who in fact, shares space on a coaching tree with him. Enter a man with expectations, a man who won’t stand for any loafs. Enter Matt Eberflus.

From the man known as Flus’ Welcome post:

“Eberflus played college football at Toledo before transitioning into a coaching role at his alma mater. Over the next nine years, he held multiple positions with the Rockets on the defensive side of the ball before heading to Mizzou to become their defensive coordinator. After eight years in Columbia, Eberflus took his talents to the NFL, hiring on as the Browns’ linebackers coach. He would spent two years there before following Rob Ryan to Dallas in 2011. The man known as Coach Flus spent the next seven years there as the linebackers coach, the last two with the title of passing game coordinator added on. In 2018, he headed up north to serve as DC for the Colts, a position he held until [January 27].”

From the same post, Flus’ coordinating career:

With Coach Flus comes the return of the Tampa-2. Seth Fisher at MGoBlog penned a terrific piece on what the Tampa-2 is as well as the things that differentiate it from its older cousin, the Cover-2. The short version is that the Tampa-2 Functions as something of a Cover-2/Cover-3 hybrid. The Mike’s coverage responsibilities extend deeper over the middle, thus allowing the safeties to be more aggressive on the outside, and thus, the cornerbacks can be more aggressive underneath. Giving the Mike more responsibility in coverage means somebody has to cover for him in the run game. That falls to the off-ball linebacker(s)/nickelback. It is for this reason that you will hear lots about the importance of the nickel in this defense and of corners being able to tackle. It is also for this reason that if somebody tells you that the Bears shouldn’t bother paying Roquan Smith because “off-ball linebacker isn’t a premium position,” you should stop listening to that person. Also of particular importance in this scheme are the defensive tackles, a) because if they’re doing their jobs, it lessens the loss of some of that Mike run support and b) you’re usually only sending four, so they need to be able to get pressure.

The man Coach Flus has tasked with running the defense is Alan Williams. Williams was a college teammate of Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin at William & Mary before entering the coaching ranks, first as a high school assistant, and then at his alma mater. Williams started off coaching running backs at William & Mary for two years then flipping over to the other side of the ball to coach defensive backs. Ever since that move in 1998, Williams has been on the defensive side. In 2001, he got a job in Tampa as a defensive assistant under Tony Dungy, then followed Dungy to Indianapolis after Tampa canned him. Williams would coach DBs in Indy for a decade before getting a chance as a defensive coordinator in Minnesota, serving under Leslie Frazier. His time in Minnesota, in chart form:

Williams was let go with the rest of the staff after the 2013 season. He would spend the next four years as the Lions’ DB coach before heading back to Indy in 2018 when Flus got the DC job there. And here we are. Let’s meet the guys he’s got to work with.

Edge rusher

Robert Quinn returns, presumably because Ryan Poles never found a return he liked enough to move him. Quinn is coming off a career year, one in which he broke the Bears’ single-season sack record with 18.5, half a sack off his career high. This was a welcome sight coming off a year in which Quinn recorded just a pair of sacks after being given big money to come to Chicago by Ryan Pace. While another career year isn’t overly likely with Quinn now 32 years old, nor is another two-sack season likely. In addition, with the change to Matt Eberflus and Alan Williams’ 4-3 scheme, coverage duties should be a thing of the past.

Trevis Gipson returns looking to build on a 2021 that saw him record 7 sacks. A fifth-round pick out of Tulsa in 2020, Gipson looked rather ordinary when on the field during his rookie year, routinely finding himself in the wrong spot. This was somewhat understandable, as he was mainly a 3-4 end in college. It started to click last year, though, and Bears fans began to witness his potential. He figures to be in line for a bigger role this year. This space asserts that he will, in fact, take the next step.

Al-Quadin Muhammad comes to Chicago as a free agent signing with plenty of experience in Coach Eberflus’ defense. A sixth-round pick out of Miami by the Saints in 2017, Muhammad played just a single season in New Orleans before being waived and picked up by the Colts. His first three years in Indianapolis saw him used predominantly as a backup, recording just 8 starts over those 3 years. Last year, he started all 17 games and recorded a career-high 6 sacks. So, yeah, he’s not exactly a game changer, but at least figures to be a quality rotation piece.

Dominique Robinson is Velus Jones’ defensive counterpart (read: rookie I will make “old” jokes about). The fifth-round pick out of Miami, but this time, the one in Ohio, turned 24 in July. A two-star quarterback recruit coming out of high school, Robinson originally planned on focusing on basketball in college before his high school football coach convinced to keep playing the greatest sport known to mankind. While a freshman at Miami (OH), Robinson switched from quarterback to wide receiver, where he would play the next two years with limited production. After getting passed on the depth chart at receiver, Robinson switched sided of the ball and played as a defensive end, a totally natural transition that happens all the time. Robinson played in just three games in 2020, recording a pair of sacks. He would see action in 12 games in 2021 and tally 4.5 sacks. Robinson is an athletic, but raw player who figures to be something of a project, having only picked up the position two years ago. There’s serious upside there, we’ll see if he can get there.

Defensive interior

Justin Jones was Plan B for Ryan Poles after Larry Ogunjobi failed a physical after agreeing to terms with the Bears. A fifth-year pro out of NC State, Jones slots in as the Bears’ 3-tech. The Chargers’ 2018 third-round pick is a much better run defender than pass rusher, but he’s athletic enough to make teams respect him on passing downs. That athleticism also helps him against the run, where said athleticism, paired with ample size and strength make him a handful to handle.

Angelo Blackson is the man listed as the starter opposite Jones going into week one on the Bears’ official depth chart. An eighth-year journeyman out of Auburn, Blackson was the last in the line of Ryan Pace’s quality defensive linemen plucked pretty much out of nowhere and could have been the subject of a print Abbott and Costello routine as he spent 2021 as a Bear DE and is from Bear, DE. Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus have ruined that routine by moving him to nose tackle. Perhaps we can revive the bit by getting him dual citizenship; NT is the postal abbreviation for the Northwest Territories and there are plenty of bears up there. That will have to wait, though, as he’s needed as a starter here. After stops in Tennessee, Houston, and Arizona, Ryan Pace brought Blackson to Chicago, where he had the best year of his career, setting a career-high in tackles, tying his career high in sacks, and recording the first interception of his career, picking off Joe Burrow during that bit of the game where everyone was taking a turn doing it. He’s got the size to play nose tackle and can provide some pass rush from the position.

Mike Pennel Jr. is here to add to his collection of NFL jerseys. A UDFA signing by the Cheddar Hat Society in 2014 out of Colorado State – Pueblo, Pennel is your prototypical nose tackle. Pennel has more NFL jerseys (5 now, 6 if you count the time he spent in New England during the 2019 offseason, 7 if you count the jersey he got when he was in camp with the Bears last year) than he does NFL sacks (2). Is that ideal for a Tampa-2 system? No, not really. A Tampa-2 nose tackle is ideally more Booger McFarland than Vince Wilfork. Even so, Poles knows Pennel from his time in Kansas City and he’s capable enough to be an okay depth piece, particularly on run downs.

[Ed: Pennel was cut Friday.]

Armon Watts comes to Chicago as a waiver wire pickup after being cut by the Vikings out of camp. Watts is capable of playing both interior line spots in this defense. Parker Hurley of Bear Goggles On broke down where he’s played thus far in his career:

“During the rookie season of Armon Watts, he played almost exclusively as a nose tackle. However, as time has moved on, he has moved a bit closer to the B-gap as a three-technique. Last season he played a career-high in snaps, mainly because of an injury to Michael Pierce. That gave him the chance to move around the line as well, from the 1-technique to the 3-technique.

According to PFF, Armon Watts played 55.6% of his career snaps as a three-technique, with 31.9% coming as a one-tech or a nose at the zero. He also spent 12.4% of his snaps outside at the five-technique or even further away from the snap.”

Your author would bet a nickel that Ryan Poles views him as a nose tackle. That said, he’s listed at just 295 pounds on the Bears roster. He’s got the pass rush ability you look for in this scheme; he registered 5 sacks as a Viking last year.

Linebacker

Roquan Smith is the greatest American ever and that’s coming from a youth football coaching legend, not just some random clown.

Roquan was the story of the summer as he negotiated a big money contract extension to no avail before requesting a trade. The trade request always seemed like a bargaining tactic and Ryan Poles did not take the bait. So now Roquan bets on himself and plays out his option year. The Bears still have some leverage here because they can apply the franchise tag, but that may not improve the relationship between Smith and the team. Poles is taking something of a gamble here as well, as Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Devin White’s contract is up after the 2023 season and thus, could sign an extension next summer, one that will likely make him the highest-paid linebacker in the league. We don’t know exactly what Roquan was asking for during negotiations, but once White signs, whatever he was asking for will probably look like a bargain, especially when one considers the upcoming rise in the salary cap. In short, pay the man, Ryan.

There were some fans who don’t believe Roquan is worth the money as off-ball linebacker (your author learned this position as the Will linebacker, even if it’s not actually on the weak side) isn’t a “premium position.” Stop listening to those people. Those people probably had to finance their waterbeds. There is a reason Coach Eberflus wants Roquan at Will instead of putting him at Mike. The reason is that Will is an important position in the Tampa-2 defense and bears significant responsibilities in both the run and passing games. Think Lance Briggs here under Lovie Smith or Derrick Brooks in Tampa under Monte Kiffin. Your author has compared Roquan to the latter since his days at Georgia. He’s full-on Derrick Brooks 2.0 now, even if Pro Bowl and All-Pro voters fail to realize it.

Roquan was the Bears’ best player a year ago, recording 163 tackles, good for fifth in the league, along with three sacks, and a pick that the took back to the house. He’s a force in the run game, plays sideline to sideline, and is a strong cover linebacker. Again, Brooks 2.0. Pay. The. Man.

Nicholas Morrow slots in at Mike linebacker after coming over from Las Vegas as a free agent. An undrafted free agent signing in 2017 by the then-Oakland Raiders out of D-III Greenville college in downstate Illinois, Morrow started 29 games over four years as a Raider before missing all of the 2021 season with an ankle injury. When on the field, he’s been mostly solid. Is he the tackle machine Roquan is? No. But he’s got solid instincts, plenty of athleticism, and good cover skills, all of which he’ll need as a Tampa-2 Mike.

Jack Sanborn is the recipient of the Daniel Braverman Award for 2022, awarded to the training camp player that fans talk themselves into believing they could be a star. Sanborn had a very nice showing against a bunch of former Kansas City Chiefs in the first preseason game and from there, the hype train was full steam ahead. To be fair, Sanborn’s instincts and nose for the ball were never in question. Indeed, if he had the requisite athleticism for today’s NFL, he would have received a 3rd-4th round grade from your author. Alas, his 40 could be timed with a sundial and thus, the local boy and former Wisconsin Badger’s role is probably limited to special teams and perhaps spot duty on run downs.

Sterling Weatherford sounds like he should be an Omega at Faber College or perhaps the villain in Caddyshack III, but I assure you, he is, in fact, a linebacker for the Chicago Bears. Mr. Fancypants was a  UDFA signing this year by the Colts out of Miami (OH), where he played safety, a fact I bring up not only because it’s relevant to his story, but also because a certain Hall of Fame Bears linebacker also played safety in college. That Hall of Famer was a first-round pick, not a UDFA cut by the first team that signed him, so do not expect similar results. That said, Matt Eberflus’ background is in linebackers and the Colts were hoping Weatherford would clear waivers so he could be added to their practice squad.

Weatherford’s background as a safety should mean he has the coverage skills needed to play Mike in Coach Flus’ scheme, giving the Bears a backup option there, as Jack Sanborn is very much not a Mike.

Cornerback

Jaylon Johnson is the lead dog at cornerback for the Bears. A second-round pick in 2020 out of Utah, Johnson is already the 2nd-best use of a 2nd-round pick by Ryan Pace and is taking aim at Cody Whitehair for the top spot. Johnson shows up on tape, but not so much on the stat sheet, having recorded only a single interception in two years in the NFL. A strong zone corner and a physical one at that, this space predicts great things for Johnson in the new defense.

Kyler Gordon hopes to make his own mark as a second-round pick corner. A 2022 draftee out of Washington, Gordon has the ball skills and tackling ability to play inside or outside, and so far, it looks like the staff will have him focus on the former. Not a bad idea given the importance of nickel corner in the Tampa-2.

Kindle Vildor had a rough go of things a year ago, but could benefit greatly from the change in defensive scheme. A 5th-round pick in 2020 out of Georgia Southern, Vildor’s biggest struggles last year were in man coverage. Well, Kindle, welcome to the Tampa-2! You’ll have one area to cover and you have to be willing to tackle. We already know he’s a willing tackler, we’ll see how he takes to zone coverage. Your author cautions against any great expectations, but maybe, he could be kinda okay?

Lamar Jackson is not the quarterback and former MVP Lamar Jackson, even though there are probably some folks out there who still think that that Lamar Jackson should try switching to cornerback.

 

 

Anyway, this Lamar Jackson is a corner by trade who was an undrafted free agent signing by the Jets in 2020 and didn’t do much there. He’s a capable tackler, which we’ve established is an important trait in this scheme. His coverage in the preseason left something to be desired at times. I’m not holding my breath on him. Nor apparently is anyone else, as corner was singled out as a position where the team especially wants to continue to improve.

Safety

Eddie Jackson looks to return to All-Pro form in Matt Eberflus’ defense and should have every opportunity to do so. A fourth-round pick in 2017 out of Alabama, Jackson was a Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro in 2018 as a major part of the NFC North Championship team. Then Vic Fangio left for Denver to become head coach of the Broncos and the Bears brought in Chuck Pagano. Pagano never really knew how to use Jackson and, while Jackson was again a Pro Bowler in 2019, he wasn’t the same guy under Pagano. Pagano would retire after two years as Bears DC and in stepped Sean Desai, who looked to run a scheme more like Fangio’s zone-based system. Jackson would have another good, not great year. Safety being a very important spot in the Tampa-2, Jackson should have every opportunity to ball out this year. If he doesn’t, the team may look to move on next summer.

Whereas Eddie Jackson is very much a deep safety, Jaquan Brisker has no problem coming up to the line and laying the wood. Listed at 6’1, 200 pounds, he looks bigger than that and certainly plays bigger than that. A second-round pick by the Bears this past spring, your author was impressed by his play near the line of scrimmage, but thought his coverage could use a little work. No doubt Coach Flus and company have been working with him on that. Expect some growing pains given the complexity of the safety position in the Tampa-2, but his ceiling is immense.

Dane Cruikshank comes to Chicago as a free agent signing from Tennessee. The former Arizona Wildcat brings a mix of coverage skills and physicality that could be useful to the team as a safety/linebacker hybrid sort of player in some nickel looks. This space cautions against expecting much more of him than that.

DeAndre Houston-Carson returns for his seventh season as a Chicago Bear. A sixth-round pick in 2016 out of William & Mary, Houston-Carson has been a capable piece when pressed into duty and on special teams. DHC started games for the first time in his career last season, getting the nod in three games and was mostly fine. Nobody’s going to mistake him for an All-Pro, but there are worse depth options.

Special Teams

Cairo Santos hit 40 straight field goals before Matt Nagy insisted that he try a 65-yarder on the only turf in the league worse than Soldier Field’s to beat the Steelers and the refs last year. The record was 44. Old Matt, crap like this is why you were fired. While Santos wasn’t quite his 2020 self, he still hit 86.7% of his field goals with a long of 47. He is more than fine. He is our guy. He led us out of the dark days of Kickerpalooza. Vive Cairo.

Trenton Gill is a punter. He is here because the last guy split for Green Bay. Whatever. Thus far, Gill has looked like a quality punter with good control of his kicks. May he never see the field, save for holding balls for Cairo.

Patrick Scales returns as the long snapper. Hopefully, this is the last time anyone mentions his name. Thus is the life of a long snapper. It is a thankless job, which is why I make the point to mention him here. Thank you, Patrick.

Twitter: @KevinSports312

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.