By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Allowing 2,583 rushing yards doesn’t happen by accident. For the 2013 Bears defense, it was a complete systemic breakdown. A rapid erosion of communication, technique and fundamentals precipitated by a rash of injuries to key players along the defensive front. A domino effect took place, and the first pieces to fall were up the middle at defensive tackle.
By Week 5, the Bears had lost the services of both Henry Melton and Nate Collins, and they proceeded to allow 123 or more rushing yards in 10 of their final 12 games, six times surrendering 198 or more yards. Those staggering numbers brought focus onto the lack of quality young depth on defense.
General manager Phil Emery used free agency to fill voids on the edge in hopes of rejuvenating the pass rush. In the draft, Emery used early picks on two interior defensive lineman, selecting Ego Ferguson in the second round (51st overall) and Will Sutton in the third round (82nd overall).
Ferguson declared after his junior season at LSU, his only year as a starter. He was suspended for the Outback Bowl — a 21-14 win over Iowa — for violating team rules. A right ankle injury limited Ferguson to just the bench press at the scouting combine, but he was fully healthy for LSU’s pro day on April 9.
Here’s the breakdown on Ferguson in our rookie spotlight.
Arm length: 32 1/2″
40-yard dash: 5.1
Vertical jump: 29″
Ferguson lined up at one-, two-, two-i and three-technique in LSU’s base 40-front and occasionally lined up as a zero-technique in their 30-front sub package in obvious passing situations. Given his limited experience as a starter, Ferguson is a project who will have to learn at the NFL level. However, his size and speed make him an intriguing prospect with upside.
Stout run defender – Ferguson isn’t an explosive, up-the-field pass rusher; however, he’s very strong at the point of attack against the run. He flashed the ability to stack and shed blockers and re-establish the line of scrimmage, as well as hold his gap to keep the linebackers clean. He plays from a solid base and bends at his knees (instead of at the waist), which allows him to play with proper balance.
Light on his feet – For a large man, Ferguson has excellent lateral mobility. On plays to the perimeter, he quickly pursues and takes proper angles to the ball carrier. He has a quick get-off and plays with a high motor until the whistle blows. He doesn’t rely exclusively on power to make his way into the backfield, as he also uses his footwork to set up blockers prior to shooting his gap. Given his low overall productivity, scouts were certainly intrigued by Ferguson’s nimble footwork.
Block recognition – Another aspect of Ferguson’s game that consistently showed up on film was properly reading his pre- and post-snap keys. Pre-snap, defensive tackles have to key the stance of the offensive lineman in their gap to get indicators whether it’s a pass or run, a pull or a drive block. Post-snap, the defensive tackle must read the helmet of their blockers — high-hats designate pass, low-hats designate run. Ferguson was very quick to not only get his hands on the blocker, but also to read their leverage and quickly get his eyes into the backfield to diagnose the play.
Areas for improvement
Hand fighting – Ferguson doesn’t use his hands violently to disengage and displays a limited repertoire of pass rush moves, primarily a quick rip and a club. He has a tendency to stop using his hands and stay blocked when stalemated. More often than not, he would bench his blocker off his body and not do anything further to free himself, causing him to disappear for long stretches during games.
Finishing plays – Despite playing for three seasons at LSU, Ferguson managed only five tackles for loss, three hurries and one quarterback sack. These are very low numbers for someone with his size-to-speed combination. He made his way into the opposing backfield but was unable to finish, frequently letting the running back pass him by or the quarterback escape.
Lowering his pad level – In the trenches, the rule of thumb is “low man wins.” A defensive tackle must fire out of his stance from a low to a high position and keep his pads and eye-level beneath that of their blocker. Ferguson has a tendency to stand straight up out of his stance and punch out, which allowed blockers to get underneath him, bend him back and get him on his heels. Against double teams, he needs to learn to stay low and turn his hips into the blockers to split the double.
Prospects for 2014
During his conference call with the media, Ferguson revealed that defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni already had a role in mind for him: the two-technique defensive tackle, which means lining head up over the offensive guard.
The role of the two-technique is to work through the guard, read his leverage and man both the A- and B-gap, which is also known as “two-gapping.” On pass plays, he should collapse the pocket from the inside. On run plays, he should protect the linebacker and force the offense to double team him.
Given that Ferguson is still learning the nuances of the position (he came to LSU as a defensive end recruit), look for the Bears to ease him in by deploying him both in early down and short-distance defensive packages. He should immediately make an impact against the run, but it will take time for him to establish himself as a potential three-down lineman.
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