By Adam Hoge-
HALAS HALL (CBS) — No matter who you talk to on the defensive side of the football — from coaches to players — you hear the same two words in regards to the struggles of the Bears’ defensive line.
But what does that mean?
“Two distinct different words and terms,” head coach Marc Trestman said.
And yet they are so important together on a defensive line.
“It just means, first of all, doing your assignment and trusting the man next to him is going to do his,” defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. “That’s a part of it. In the rush game, being able to rush off of each other, overlap with each other. Communicate and make sure we have a coordinated pass rush. Everybody’s on the same page. That’s a big part of it.”
Unfortunately, so far, the defensive line has not been on the same page enough. Through six games, no one on the defensive line has more than one sack. Together, the unit only has four total.
Talent is not the problem, the coaches insist. Playing together with more continuity is where the unit can improve.
Of course, that’s not easy when you lose two defensive tackles and a middle linebacker to season ending injuries. After all, the defensive line depends on those linebackers to fill the gaps and complete the run fits.
“That’s something the whole NFL goes through, not only us, in terms of things happen and people get injured and you have to move people in,” Trestman said. “Some of that goes back to preparation during training camp and OTAs. You know, playing with what-if scenarios and moving people around.”
The depth at defensive tackle took a hit on the first day of training camp, when Sedrick Ellis was a no-show. That led to defensive end Corey Wootton getting some reps inside at the three-technique, a position he is now playing almost exclusively after Henry Melton and Nate Collins were lost to torn ACLs.
“It wasn’t Corey Wootton’s first time inside when Henry Melton went down and so forth — moving people in and out … I think that’s part of maintaining continuity,” Trestman said.
But not everybody on this roster was with the Bears in training camp. Defensive end David Bass was signed from the Raiders after final cuts were made and defensive tackle Landon Cohen was signed off the street just 48 hours before the Bears’ Week 4 matchup in Detroit. Both players have been forced into the rotation, their reps only increasing with Stephen Paea missing the last two games with a turf toe injury — something that could linger all season.
As a result, Tucker has been forced to shuffle his line constantly. Not just week-to-week with new bodies, but also from series-to-series, even play-to-play.
And it’s not easy to build that continuity and trust with the guy next to you when the guy next to you is constantly changing.
“I think the biggest thing is just working together,” Wootton told CBSChicago.com. “Sometimes people are going to mess up and go a way they’re not supposed to, but once you get everybody overlapping and understanding each other, no matter what happens, you are able to right the wrongs.”
Wootton can specifically point to certain plays where the Bears have missed out on a sack because one player on the line didn’t execute properly.
“There have been times where we could have had a couple sacks if we just stayed in a stunt, where one person goes upfield and the other one comes underneath, but you know, the one person goes upfield and he comes back. If he had just stayed at that level, the quarterback would have ran right to him. Stuff like that. It’s been a little bit of that — a lot of bit of that this year — and I think we just need to get on the same page.”
Every player on the line has been guilty of a mix up at times. One such play occurred last week against the Giants when Wootton and Shea McClellin collided in the middle of the field while running a stunt.
“It was both people trying to be in the same gap when we’re not supposed to be,” Wootton said.
So how do the Bears fix the problem?
Given what the problem actually is, trading for another defensive tackle might be the wrong thing to do. Inserting another stranger into the mix could just further the delay of building the continuity and trust the defensive line is striving for.
This week, the coaches “clarified everything” for the players, according to Wootton, going over exactly what they are going to do against the Redskins and when they are going to do it.
“In this league, sacks are really hard to come by, so when you mess up like that, it’s tough,” Wootton said. “You’ve got to take advantage of those opportunities.”
There will be more of those opportunities this Sunday in Maryland. And if there has been an improvement in the continuity and trust among the linemen since they last took the field, then there will probably be an improvement in the Bears’ pass rush.
You’ll find out Sunday.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.