Much has been made of Chicago’s improvements at receiver and tight end, their electric duo at running back, and of course, their promising young quarterback, Mitch Trubisky (at this point I’m contractually obligated to include his name into everything I write about the Bears).
But their most underrated position group and the one that can be the most dominant comes on the other side of the football. Chicago’s defense will for much of the season depend on the big boys up front – the defensive line.
The Bears will send out a top pairing of monsters who have a chance to be among the league’s most dominant units. They bring an expertise in space eating and block shedding, superior strength to almost any interior offensive lineman, and a pass rushing arsenal that for one of them is still developing but for the other is rivaled by very few tackles in football.
The main question mark, however, is if they have the depth to keep the stars fresh and if the backups have diverse enough skillsets to become useful in the pass rushing game, which is the most important aspect of defensive football.
I’ll explore that and more in the sixth of a series of positional previews leading up to the opening of the Chicago Bears’ training camp in Bourbonnais, Illinois on July 21st.
Projected Depth Chart
The starters: Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman
The backups: Johnathan Bullard, Roy Robertson-Harris, Bilal Nichols, John Jenkins
Camp depth/back of the roster: Will Pericak, Nicholas Williams, Abdullah Anderson, Andrew Trumbetti, Cavon Walker, Bunmi Rotimi
There’s a glaring distinction that some might question when looking at this depth chart, and that is that I’ve only listed two starters when the Bears run a 3-4 defense.
The easy explanation for that perceived oversight is… they don’t. In the NFL these days, the majority of defensive sets involve a nickel cornerback, which causes the front seven to lose either a lineman or a linebacker, and in the case of Vic Fangio’s scheme, it’s usually a lineman. Matt Nagy himself said that about 60% of plays are run out of sub packages, and that especially applies to a team in a division with three top-flight quarterbacks.
Hicks and Goldman are clearly the two stalwarts in the middle of the defense who I referenced earlier. Hicks is the much more established player, as he’s coming off two consecutive superb seasons and at one point was a legitimate defensive player of the year candidate. He continues to be overlooked by national analysts but if the Bears find a way to win a few more ballgames this season, that will change.
Goldman has gone even more under the radar as the nose tackle who doesn’t show up on the stat sheet too often but makes his impact in other equally important areas. It’s huge to have a man like him clogging up lanes and taking on two blockers with ease on a play-by-play basis.
The Bears’ run defense in the past three seasons has been considerably better with him on the field than off of it and he’ll add a push in the pass rush and even a few Goldman Sacks (I’m very sorry) to boot.
Beyond those two, the Bears have a few talented yet quite unproven young players in Bullard, Robertson-Harris, and Nichols, the last of whom is entering his rookie season. Bullard especially has shown flashes and an excellent burst off the ball but it has yet to translate into production.
Key training camp battle: Fight for playing time behind Goldman and Hicks
Like I touched on earlier, nobody behind the top two players has proven anything at the NFL level. Bullard has the highest pedigree as a former third-round pick who displays tantalizing potential but he will need to show that he’s developed a more complete skill set in training camp.
Robertson-Harris had an outstanding preseason last year and if he can repeat it he’ll get ample reps as well. Nichols has a reputation as a very hard worker coming out of Delaware as a fifth-round pick but he has to figure out a wider array of pass rushing moves. Jenkins has the most experience but it’s quite possible that a younger player who excels in camp pushes him off the depth chart. It should be interesting to watch as this is a wide-open competition.
Keys to success
1. Goldman needs to stay healthy
I feel so redundant reiterating the health point over and over again but a lack of sizable injury counties the most important aspect of the Bears’ season (other than Trubisky) for any given position. It does feel especially significant for this one, though.
Hicks has never had injury problems in his tenure with Chicago but Goldman certainly has and without him, the Bears have been in deep, deep trouble. He is the Bears’ best run defender and when he’s on the field, everyone else is much better as well. Goldman usually takes on two or three blockers at a time, stands his ground, and sometimes splits the double team, which renders two blockers useless on a given play. His health is paramount to the Bears’ defensive efforts.
2. Pushing the pocket for the outside linebackers
This is what the Bears’ top two are best at and it’s one of the more useful tools any interior defensive lineman can possess.
An inside push that Hicks or Goldman can provide, or even a hand fighting victory that goes as far as collapsing the pocket and picking up a sack for themselves, makes it so the quarterback is unable to step up. This allows edge rushers like Leonard Floyd to focus solely on beating the offensive tackle off the edge, which is what they should do best.
Making the pocket smaller is especially useful against quarterbacks who excel at escaping it and making plays with their legs. Two of the signal callers in the NFC North, Stafford and he who must not be named, are particularly good at this and it’s paramount that Goldman and Hicks do everything they can to make life difficult inside for these QBs.
3. The second wave of pass rushers
While Goldman and Hicks are both excellent football players, they leave a bit to be desired in terms of skill set diversity. Hicks provides much much more of a pass rushing weapon but their body types are quite similar – both are behemoths who rely mostly on strength and power to overcome their blockers.
It would be very helpful if Bullard or Robertson-Harris stepped up and became a third and maybe even a fourth pass rushing weapon because they’re more of the quickness/slasher-oriented type linemen who can stunt to the outside with effectiveness and that opens up a whole new world of possibilities for blitz packages and pass rush maneuvers. Giving Hicks or especially Goldman a spell on third and long would be great as well, as it would behoove the Bears to keep their big boys fresh throughout the duration of the long season.
Follow Jack on Twitter: @JS_92_ –Feature Photo Credit: USA Today