By Bryan Dietzler
Throughout their long history, the Bears had always run a 4-3 defense and it had worked well for them, for the most part, throughout their time using it. In 2015, things would be different however as new head coach John Fox introduced the 3-4 defense to the Bears and brought in a “master” of the 3-4 defense in Vic Fangio (formerly of the San Francisco 49ers) to run it. The Bears defense has been awful the previous two seasons under former head coach Marc Trestman and everyone hoped that 2015 would be better.
While this wasn’t a “remarkable” turn around season for the defense, it was a much better year than the team and fans had thought that they were going to get. The Bears did very well in several aspects on defense and, with a few more pieces, could really come around even more in 2016. However, what do the Bears need to do to make the offense better in 2016? Do they need additional talent? Do they need the players they already have to step up and play better? What can they do to improve?
The following is a look back at the Bears individual defensive units from 2015 and a quick look ahead as to how things might go in 2016. There is a look at some of the individual players that helped make this year a decent one and where the players might be at next year.
The Bears needed some solid defensive linemen to make their 3-4 defense work. They drafted Eddie Goldman to be the nose tackle to anchor the defensive line in 2015 and in the future. Goldman did not disappoint as he had a solid season but ended the year missing one game on injured reserve. If Goldman can stay healthy then he should continue to grow and be even better in his second season. Jarvis Jenkins was a fine free agent pickup for the Bears but he is only one a one-year deal so the Bears will either have to bring him back or find someone else to take his place.
Will Sutton had a quiet but solid year but Ego Ferguson went out of the lineup early and was placed on injured reserve. Their star going into the season was Jeremiah Ratliff but after some trouble, they let him go and others had to fill in. Some of the players used to take over did a good job filling in but no one really stood out as being “spectacular”. Chicago will hope that Goldman is able to do that next year and perhaps some of their younger depth players will be able to step it up next year. Don’t be surprised if the Bears try to add depth or starting caliber talent here during the offseason.
The outside linebacker group saw a lot of change in 2015. Defensive ends that had their hand in the dirt in previous seasons were now finding themselves standing up and either rushing the passer, dropping back in coverage or participating in run support. You had former defensive ends like Willie Young and Lamarr Houston playing outside linebacker and they did very well performing in that role. Sam Acho also performed well playing the outside linebacker position and brought some solid play to the position.
Incidentally, the Bears started the season with Jared Allen playing the outside linebacker position as well but things weren’t working out well for him or the team so they ended up trading him to the Carolina Panthers. The loss didn’t have a huge impact on the team and the Bears got a sixth round pick for it.
The future of the outside linebacker position for the Bears is a little cloudy. They have Acho signed to just a one year deal so if they decide not to bring him back (it’s very likely they will have him come back) they will be in the hunt for some help at the outside linebacker position. Another player, whose status could be up in the air, is Young. Young wants to be a defensive end and has been very vocal about it so the Bears may choose to appease him (even though he is still going to be under contract) and let him go. Houston appears to be set at outside linebacker so don’t look for him to be going anywhere.
The inside linebacker position could be just as cloudy heading into the offseason as the outside linebacker position is and perhaps more so. The Bears had a rotation at the inside linebacker position this season as injuries and ineffective play caused the team to make some changes. Their primary starter and signal caller Shea McClellin missed some time due to injury but may not have been as effective as the Bears wanted him to be when he was actually in there. Christian Jones played a lot this year but was supplanted by John Timu possibly due to injury (he did suffer a slight injury later on in the season) but maybe more likely to being ineffective. Timu played very well when he was in the lineup.
The biggest question for the Bears at the inside linebacker position is who will actually be back next season. McClellin’s contract is up and the Bears didn’t pick up his fifth year option so it’s likely that he may be gone this offseason. It’s tough to tell if they are going to bring Jones back but they may have seen enough of Timu to bring him back and see how he does in the preseason next year. The Bears will probably be in the market for some help at the inside linebacker position this offseason and should try to get that help through the draft or through free agency. This is going to be an interesting position to watch.
The safety position was solid at one spot but constantly rotating at the other. Rookie safety Adrian Amos was solid and played the entire season. He did have a slip up every once in a while but overall he had a good performance and should remain the starter for the Bears in 2016. Chicago brought in veteran Antrel Rolle to fill in at one of the safety spots and he spent most of the season injured and then was placed on injured reserve. In his absence, the Bears used Chris Prosinski and Harold Jones-Quartey. Prosinski had his struggles towards the end of the season and was replaced by Jones-Quartey who had a fine game against the Buccaneers. He may not be their long-term answer at the safety position though.
The Bears are solid with Amos at safety but with Rolle being up there in age and an injury risk the Bears may want to look elsewhere for help at the other safety position. They have some nice depth there but they need to get a good starting caliber safety to help make things work for them. Look for them to concentrate on fixing the position opposite Amos this offseason and possibly release Rolle or relegate him to backup duty. Keep in mind that Ryan Mundy will be coming back so there might be a solution with his return although he hasn’t been performing at a high level for some time now.
The play at the cornerback started off rocky but got better as the season went on and could be considered solid. The combination of Tracy Porter and Kyle Fuller worked well and after Fuller’s rough start, he played better and gave the Bears solid play at the position. Porter, after missing a little time at the start of the season came in and played very well. He had a knack for knocking down passes and putting tight coverage on the receivers. Porter could almost have been considered a shutdown corner for what he was able to do this season.
The problem is Porter is on a one-year deal and the Bears may (but should) not bring him back. Their depth at the cornerback isn’t the best and they will need to search for some depth during the offseason. Fuller should be even better in 2016 and they may choose to bring back Porter as long he can remain healthy and as long as they don’t figure that he is getting too far up there in age. Then they can fill in around those two and get better at the cornerback position.
Bryce Callahan provided some nice play at the nickel position but was hurt towards the end of the season and didn’t see much action then. If he can keep healthy, the Bears may have found a long-term answer at that position. Look for him to have some competition in training camp but come out ahead and win the starting nickel job.
While there isn’t a lot of concern, it is possible that Fangio could interview for a head coaching position or two this offseason but there are indications that this isn’t going to happen. If the Bears were to lose Fangio for any reason it would set them back on defense and could quite possibly force them to rebuild and re-tool again in 2016. However, it’s likely that Fangio isn’t going to go anywhere.
The Bears need to spend some time this offseason shoring up their defense. They could use some help in almost every position group on the team and need to find some starting power and depth at several positions. The problem is the offense will need some rebuilding as well so the Bears are going to have to spread things around a little bit in terms of the money they have available with the salary cap and the draft picks that they are going to have. General Manager Ryan Pace is going to have to do a good job of finding talent and fixing the holes on defense to make it a much better unit in 2016.
Look for the Bears to make a run at trying to get better on defense and have a more complete and potent unit for the 2016 season. Spending smart in free agency and getting some good draft picks will go a long ways towards helping this unit out. Chicago should be able to put a better defense on the field next season and have a better 2016 than they did in 2015.
Special teams were up and down all season for the Bears. They started off poorly by allowing returns for touchdowns on several occasions but had their high points with some blocked kicks and solid returns. The middle of the season saw the unit get better but towards the end of the year the kicking game struggled and the Bears had a blocked punt. Special teams came through on some occasions but fell short on others.
Kicker Robbie Gould did well to start the year booting several field goals keeping the team in games. He did struggle for a period in the middle of the season and then really struggled in the last few games of the year missing key kicks that would have won or tied games for the Bears (as the games came to a close) and directly contributed to the team losing games. Gould picked it up as the season game to a close and got better but his missed field goals were costly. It’s doubtful that the Bears would consider getting rid of Gould this offseason but they might bring in some competition to “motivate” him a little bit.
The punting game was solid as Pat O’Donnell provided solid punting throughout the season. He had good hang time and distance on his punts and the Bears should be satisfied with him heading into the offseason. The punt coverage units left a little something to be desired however and the Bears will work on shoring that up this offseason to not allow any more touchdown returns or long returns. Special teams coach Jeff Rodgers will be spending some time getting that fixed this offseason.
The kick return game began the season seeing Marc Mariani as the primary returner. A little later on in the season the Bears brought Deonte Thompson in and had him return kickoffs. Thompson did a very good job returning kicks for the Bears and may be used next year to help the Bears in their kick return game. Mariani continued to return punts and did have a couple of drops that could have cost the Bears had he lost them. He’s not an overly dynamic punt returner but the Bears had no one else to carry the load for them this season. They may look for additional help in this area during the offseason.
Special teams are an area that the Bears need to concentrate on during the offseason. They clearly need to get better at covering kicks and punts and need to find a punt return specialist that isn’t going to drop the ball and can get more yardage on punt returns. Their kicking game was off this year but hopes are high that it will get back on track in 2016. Punting was good so we should see no changes there. Depending on how free agency goes and how the Bears treat their one year contracted free agents, special teams may look different next year and it should because they need to get better.