Bears’ 3-4 defense starting to take shape
The Bears were one of the few teams to change their system on the defensive side this offseason, as Mel Tucker’s four-man front has been replaced by Vic Fangio’s 3-4. A lot of personnel changes have accompanied the shift in alignment, as Chicago sought out players with experience for the new system. The unit has shown a marked improvement from a season ago, based on some key additions. The Bears have by no means an elite unit yet, but they’ve taken strides in the right direction under their new defensive coordinator.
The basis of a good 3-4, and any front seven for that matter, is a stud pass rusher who can consistently get to the opposition’s quarterback. That’s why Chicago spent the money they did on Pernell McPhee, PFF’s sixth highest graded edge defender in 2015. McPhee has an 88.8 overall grade and an 85.9 pass rush grade, which is also sixth. He currently holds our highest pass rush productivity rank this season, having recorded five sacks, seven hits and 26 pressures. McPhee finished second overall in that category in 2014 when playing in the Ravens’ 3-4 defense.
Opposite him, Sam Acho fits the role Fangio has created for him. While his pass rushing grade is just 49.6, he has graded out above 80 in both coverage run defense. While McPhee rushes one in every six pass plays, Acho drops and rushes at about an equal rate, making his superior coverage ability an asset. Ideally, he would generate more pressure, but there’s value in strong outside linebackers who can set the edge and cover tight ends.
At inside linebacker, the Bears seem to have finally found a role for Shea McClellin (71.1). He looked lost as an edge rusher in his rookie year, showing an inability to get to the quarterback, but has turned out to be solid in his stand up role. His best work has come as a run defender, which is useful considering his partner Christian Jones (69.9) struggles in that regard. Jones has just a 30.3 grade against the ground game. Then again, his 87.3 coverage grade is seventh in the league, making him useful on passing downs.
Another key component is another offseason addition, second-round nose tackle Eddie Goldman. It appeared a slight reach to grab Goldman at the top of the second round, but his play this season has been solid. A 75.0 grade is certainly respectable, with grades above 70 in both run defense and as a pass rusher. One position the Bears could certainly improve however is the five-technique. Free agent addition Jarvis Jenkins has struggled with an overall grade of 63.3 and a run defense grade of just 50.1. The Bears also haven’t had much of a contribution from Will Sutton or Mitch Unrein.
The Bears’ front seven is hardly a dominant unit, but Fangio has done a good job of fitting players into suitable roles. With an edge rusher and nose tackle locked in for the forseeable future, overhauls are no longer needed. Adding a pair of run stuffing two-gap defensive ends, and perhaps a nickel interior rusher, would take the Bears’ front seven to another level.