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Hoge’s Offseason Notebook No. 3: A New Bears Defensive Era Is Here

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Shea McClellin sacks Christian Ponder. (Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)

Shea McClellin sacks Christian Ponder. (Adam Bettcher/Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

(CBS) — It’s the question everyone wants to know the answer to.

Are the Bears switching to a 3-4 defense?

Well, here’s your answer: Yes. And no.

Here’s the thing: It’s time to stop thinking about it as a 3-4 vs. a 4-3. What matters are the assignments within the defensive fronts. Traditionally, 3-4 defenses have two-gap assignments, while 4-3 defenses have one-gap assignments.

But these days, we’re seeing more defenses that feature both one-gap and two-gap assignments within the same front. The Seahawks and Patriots are known for this. If you look at their depth charts, you see two 4-3 defenses on paper, but when you watch the film, you see a mix of even and odd fronts.

The Patriots, for example, can hit you with three down linemen on first down in a 5-2 formation with defensive end Rob Ninkovich rushing from a two-point stance in a 9-technique and linebacker Jamie Collins lined up on the opposite side doing the same thing.

Then, on second down, the Patriots might be in a typical one-gap 4-3 that looks a lot like what the Bears have run the last decade.

Then, on third down, they’ll be in nickel with three down linemen and defensive end Chandler Jones rushing from a two-point stance. This time, Collins is in a typical linebacker position behind the line, reading his keys.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, rarely run 4-3s that look anything like what Bears fans are used to. They use a lot of the 5-2 looks with linebacker Bruce Irvin rushing from a 9-technique in a two-point stance.

But those 5-2 looks are just as common in 3-4 defenses, too. The Saints frequently deployed that alignment this year as they switched to a 3-4 under Rob Ryan. But they also ran a lot of even fronts with four down linemen even though they are technically considered a 3-4.

What’s being described here are hybrid defenses. By now, you’ve probably heard that word “hybrid”, as it has become the buzz word of the month.

But to pull off a hybrid defense, you need personnel that “transcends scheme”, which can probably be considered the buzz phrase of the month.

You’ve been hearing these terms a lot lately for good reason: they very much apply to what the Bears will be doing on defense in 2014.

Again, the key is personnel and that’s what you should be watching closely over the coming months.

So far, the only additions have been coaches, but they very much fit the idea of transcending scheme. New defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni and linebackers coach Reggie Herring have experience in both 3-4s and 4-3s, with Herring most recently working with the talented linebackers in Houston’s 3-4 defense. Meanwhile, new assistant defensive line coach Clint Hurtt came from Charlie Strong’s well-known 3-3-5 defense at Louisville.

But, let’s be honest, this is a players’ league and it’s the personnel that really matters. So, keeping in mind the idea of transcending scheme, here’s what you should expect at each position group:

Defensive Line

The Bears don’t have a classic 0-technique (lined up directly over the center) on their roster but they don’t necessarily need one. The Seahawks use Brandon Mebane mostly as a 1-technique. Sometimes he has a one-gap assignment, while other times he’s in a “tilted” 1-tech taking on a two-gap assignment. Bears nose tackle Stephen Paea is of similar build as Mebane and has shown some versatility when healthy. If he can add 10 pounds or so, he could fit this role, occasionally lining up in a 0-technique as well.

Meanwhile, it’s been said that Henry Melton doesn’t fit the changes the Bears are making on defense. That’s not necessarily the case. He is a true Tampa-2 “under” 3-technique, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be subbed in and subbed out in certain packages. That’s how the Seahawks use Tony McDaniel, who primarily lines up as a one-gap 3-technique when he’s in the game. Melton’s market value has decreased with an ACL tear and a December arrest for assault, but if he can refocus himself on football, the Bears might willing to bring him back for a cheap rate.

That doesn’t mean the Bears don’t need to add new defensive tackles, however. They most definitely do. And they need one that can line up in multiple techniques. An incoming rookie like Ra’Shede Hageman would make a lot of sense because he appears to be able to play both 3-technique and 5-technique, which means he could likely handle two-gap assignments as a 4-technique lined up directly over an offensive tackle too.

Corey Wootton and Julius Peppers also would appear to fit this mold, but there’s no guarantee they’ll be back with the Bears next season. And even if they are, the Bears still need to add similarly-skilled talent to the roster, most likely through the draft.

Tweeners

Now we get to players like Shea McClellin. Both the Seahawks and Patriots feature a tweener at both defensive end and outside linebacker. For the Seahawks, defensive end Chris Clemons and linebacker Bruce Irvin fit these roles. For the Patriots, it’s defensive end Rob Ninkovich and linebacker Jamie Collins.

This is a reality, Bears fans: Shea McClellin is moving to linebacker and he figures to be in the Irvin/Collins role. This should put him in a more favorable position of rushing the quarterback from a two-point stance with more space to allow him to use his feet to set up his rushes. But it also means he needs to show he can play as a classic 4-3 strong side — or “Sam” linebacker — as well, often covering tight ends. No player will have more eyes on him in Bourbonnais this summer than McClellin.

Meanwhile, it also means the Bears need to find another tweener, but one that can be more productive when he has his hand on the ground (more on that below).

Linebacker

All the sudden, the Bears have ended up with a surplus of outside linebackers with McClellin making the move and Jon Bostic now being considered better suited to play outside. Khaseem Greene and Lance Briggs are the only other linebackers on the roster. In other words, the Bears don’t have a middle linebacker right now.

Re-signing D.J. Williams remains an option, but he doesn’t really fit the idea of getting younger on defense, which is what Bears general manager Phil Emery wants to do. On the other hand, if you don’t sign a veteran to fill that role, you pretty much have to use your first-round pick on a guy who can play right away.

Secondary

As the Bears make these hybrid changes up front, that means they’ll be playing more man-coverage on the backend. What you may have missed, is that they actually started that process against the Packers in the last game of the season (more on that below in this week’s film session).

They believe Tim Jennings can handle man-coverage, which is why they kept him around with a four-year extension, but they have to make a least one more addition. There are a number of talented corners in the draft who can play press-man.

Then there’s safety. No matter what’s happening up front, the Bears need both a play-making free safety that can roam the field and make plays on the ball, and a strong safety who can be stout in the box and cover intermediate receivers. Expect at least one safety to be drafted, if not two.

College Prospect Of The Week

DE Dee Ford, Auburn

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If the Bears need a tweener defensive end who can still rush from a three-point stance and be stout against the run, this might be their guy. The

Senior Bowl MVP was the talk of practices in Mobile last week and he backed it up with an impressive performance in Saturday’s game.

At 6-2 1/8, 248 lbs, he’s the ultimate tweener, but he looked really good with his hand on the ground in Mobile. He’s lightning quick off the ball and has long enough arms to create leverage against much bigger offensive linemen.

Ford’s size will undoubtedly have 3-4 teams thinking they can use him as an outside rush backer, but his skill set suggests he’s still a defensive end, which makes him a good fit in a hybrid scheme. He was asked to drop back in coverage periodically by Auburn and looked comfortable doing so. The biggest question will probably his ability to hold his ground against the run, but based on what he showed at the Senior Bowl, strength doesn’t appear to be too big of an issue.

Ford greatly helped his draft stock in Mobile and if the Bears want the defensive end, they’ll have to use their first round pick on him.

Film Session

I mentioned earlier about how the Bears started playing more man-coverage against the Packers in Week 17. It went somewhat unnoticed because they only used it on five or six snaps, but it was a new look against Aaron Rodgers. Here’s an example from the first quarter:

image3 Hoge’s Offseason Notebook No. 3: A New Bears Defensive Era Is Here

Zack Bowman, Tim Jennings and Isaiah Frey are the cornerbacks on the play, with Chris Conte also in press coverage on the far sideline. Major Wright is the single-high safety. On this particular snap, Rodgers’ pass to Jordy Nelson was incomplete, but Frey was called for defensive holding as he grabbed the jersey. Frey has the size to jam at the line, but he’ll have to work on his technique in the offseason.

A switch to a hybrid scheme doesn’t necessarily mean playing man exclusively — Cover-3 is also frequently used — but as the Bears use less of their Cover-2 shell, expect to see more press coverage near the line of scrimmage.

Extra Points

- While Phil Emery and the Bears’ college scouts are busy on their draft evaluations during the fall, the coaches don’t get involved until the Senior Bowl. They typically don’t stay the entire week, but the Bears’ assistants were in Mobile getting a look at the top seniors coming out of college. While we reporters might be scrambling to look at everyone on the field (an impossible task) the assistants can focus in on their specific position group and the coordinators can at least watch just one side of the ball. Scouting decisions are ultimately made by the GM and the scouting department, but the coaching staff has some input, especially the head coach.

- The Bears elected not to have Emery and head coach Marc Trestman speak to the media at the Senior Bowl, but both are expected to talk to reporters at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis next month. That’s when you can expect to get your next official offseason update directly from the Bears organization.

Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.

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