By Adam Hoge-
LAKE FOREST (CBS) — It’s a new problem for the Bears and a good one to have.
Last season, injuries and sub-par performances left the team struggling to fill out their defensive line. It’s still only March, but now they’re already stuck with the task of finding sufficient playing time for three new defensive ends.
When the Bears signed free agent defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Willie Young earlier this month, general manager Phil Emery raved about their versatility. The only problem was, there was still a lack of depth on the line, and it appeared Houston was destined to play the majority of his snaps on the right side of the line, with Young supplanted the left side.
Enter Jared Allen.
When it comes to versatility, Allen doesn’t have much.
“In terms of versatility, he can rush the passer, and he can play the run,” Emery said Monday.
That’s why, according to the general manager, “Jared is going to line up at right end,” where he lined up exclusively last season with the Vikings. And he’s going to play a lot.
“I wouldn’t be here if they told me, ‘Hey, you’re going to be a third-down rush guy,’” said Allen, who signed a four-year, $32 million deal last week and was introduced Monday at a press conference. “I have a lot left in this tank. My body feels good. And again, I feel like I can make waves.”
So what does that mean for Houston, who seemed destined to be the starting right end on the Bears’ defensive front?
It means they can move him around the way they want to. As Emery detailed on March 12, Houston played 649 snaps in 2012 with his hand on the ground on the left side of the Raiders’ defense. He also had 40-50 snaps inside at tackle. In 2013, Houston played about 180 snaps with his hand on the ground on the right side and more than 700 snaps standing up in a two-point stance.
Inside. Outside. Two-point stance. Three-point stance. The Bears will likely use Houston in all of those ways.
They wouldn’t have been able to if forced to use him strictly as the starting right end.
Young, meanwhile, rushed 75 percent of the time from the left side and 25 percent from the right side, so he can switch back and forth if necessary. Israel Idonije and David Bass also figure to move around in the rotation.
“It’s up to our coaches to find ways to get them all on the field at the same times or at different times in different personnel groups or groupings against personnel,” Emery said. “So I’m very confident that our coaches will find a way to get Lamarr, Willie, Jared on the field at the same time in different situations and help Bear football.”
Last season, Allen recorded 49.5 disruptions (combination of sacks, knockdowns and hurries, according to STATS), which was more than Julius Peppers (23) and Shea McClellin (24.5) combined. If he provides that sort of consistent presence from the right side of the line again in 2014, then the Bears will be able to get creative with their front seven, which now includes McClellin at linebacker.
It would make a lot of sense to pair Allen on the right side with defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, and it appears Allen is thinking the same thing.
“When (Ratliff is) healthy, he’s an absolute beast in the middle,” Allen said. “I’ve had the fortune to play with Pat and Kevin Williams, and he’s up there to that level with them. What he can do from the nose tackle spot or the 3-technique spot, not only in the run game but in the pass rush game, that’s huge. To have a guy that can consistently get three or four yards deep, a quarterback’s got one way to go, me or him. That I’m really excited about.”
Ratliff is one of 16 returning players the Bears have signed since the Friday before their Week 17 game against the Packers and that 28th signing overall since that time. With so many expiring contracts, Emery approached this offseason with a clear plan and has executed swiftly.
And whatever he’s selling on defense, it’s working. Allen is just the latest free-agent addition to express what appears to be genuine excitement about working on a unit that was statistically the worst in the Bears’ history a season ago.
That includes working with defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who was at Disneyland last week but did his part to recruit Allen over the phone.
“With Mel, it was more we understood each other,” Allen said. “I understood what he wanted from me and he knew what he was going to get from me. And our philosophies kind of matched up to that right way of thinking. And so there wasn’t a whole lot of recruiting. It’s just I had questions and they were answered the right way and I feel comfortable with it.”
As for Emery, it’s hard for general managers to ever feel completely comfortable with their roster, but he must feel a lot more comfortable about his defense than he did three weeks ago.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.