Turnaround on defense is coming

The Bears might make Julius Peppers a salary-cap casualty, part of an expected defensive overhaul. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

INDIANAPOLIS -- Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman delivered a quick anecdote prior to taking questions at the NFL combine on Thursday to draw a parallel between the offense’s surprising turnaround in 2013 and the challenge Chicago faces in resurrecting its dud of a defense.

Days earlier as they wrapped up a staff meeting at Halas Hall, the coaches “put up our roster as it looked last year at this time,” Trestman explained. “There were 10 players on the offensive side of the ball that were not on the roster at this time last year, and who significantly impacted our football team in a season. I just note that because this is a process we’re going through, filtering through our team, filtering through the free agents and building our team through the draft.”

In essence, Chicago plans to take an approach with the defense over the coming months similar to what it employed last offseason in revamping an offense that woefully underperformed the year before. The Bears achieved success in turning around the offense through a series of additions in the draft (left guard Kyle Long and right tackle Jordan Mills), free agency (left tackle Jermon Bushrod, tight end Martellus Bennett, and guard Matt Slauson), and a scheme change brought about by an entire new coaching staff that pushed a rededication to fundamentals at every position.

Would a similar approach on defense work to turn around a unit coming off a 2013 season in which it allowed the most yards (6,313) and points (478) in franchise history? That is an unknown the Bears certainly exude confidence about answering in 2014.

It’s true, Chicago doesn’t fully know what it plans to be on defense in 2014 in terms of scheme and personnel, just as most of the details about the most recent incarnation of the offense were unknown at this time last offseason. The Bears gradually pieced together the personnel and matched the schematics on offense with the players trickling into the building from the draft and free agency as training camp approached.

So while it appears concerning that Chicago is strapped in terms of cap room, and expected to make defensive end Julius Peppers a cap casualty ($18.183 million cap hit in 2014), not to mention that there is a slight chance the club could lose as many as six defensive starters in free agency (defensive tackle Henry Melton, cornerback Charles Tillman, safety Major Wright, defensive end Corey Wootton, and linebackers James Anderson and D.J. Williams), the Bears' brass continues to keep cool.

“I’m not stressed,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said. “I’m excited, very excited. It’s a great challenge, and it’s one that we all sign up for: an opportunity to put together a team and be consistently in the hunt to win championships. We’re in this to win it. So no, it’s not stressful. It’s a process just as we went through last year. Obviously, really from a cap perspective, we were tighter dollar-wise after we signed the UFAs [in 2013] than we’ve ever been. So it’s a process. You just keep working through it. We have a collective group of very talented people in the building to help in that process.”

They successfully navigated “the process” Emery often likes to refer to with the offense in 2013, which is why -- from this vantage point -- the team’s confidence is warranted.

In the days of former head coach Lovie Smith, 17 was the magic number. Hold a team to 17 points or fewer, and you win about 80 percent of the time. In fact, over the past 10 years, the Bears own a record of 50-13 when they hold an opponent to 17 points or fewer. But the problem under Smith was Chicago couldn’t score on offense.

The Bears fixed that problem in 2013, only to take a nosedive on the other side of the ball. In 2012 with a pedestrian offense and its usually strong defense, the Bears put up a 10-6 record, but the offense never scored more than 17 points in any of the losses. Then in 2013 with an offense that finished second in the NFL in scoring, the Bears finished 8-8 and scored 17 points in all but one of the losses as the defense gave up at least 20 points in every game.

How significant is that? Well, the Bears are 39-58 over the past 10 years when they allow 18 points or more.

It’s got to stop, and with Emery and Trestman there is a good chance it will. The Bears already hired a couple of demanding assistants in defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni and linebackers coach Reggie Herring to coax the most out of the young talent expected to be infused into the roster in the coming months. The scheme will morph into something that features multiple fronts, which is part of the reason Emery and Trestman made sure to bring in experienced coaches with backgrounds in several defenses.

According to a league source, the defense worked fewer practice repetitions than a typical defensive unit would during workouts last season as the Bears focused more on the offensive side of the ball. So even some of the finer details, such as how the Bears practice on defense are expected to change, along with the scheme and all the expected roster additions.

“What we're doing is we're looking at the existing scheme and going through the process of putting a system of football together to accommodate the players that we have when we get going, and we're not going to know who those players are for quite some time,” Trestman said. “So to lock ourselves in and be so narrow-minded that ‘this is what we're going to be’ when we don't have the players to get it done would be, to me, not very good time on task.

"We said it last year, [when the question was asked of] what kind of offense [the Bears would be in 2013]. We didn't know what kind of offense we were going to be, we're going to put a system in place to accommodate the players that Phil [Emery] gives us and that we decide are going to be on our football team, and that's certainly the case defensively as well. To lock in and say ‘this is what we're going to be’ wouldn't be fair at this point in time. It's a process, just like the evaluation of bringing players in and letting players move on. I'll circle back to the point I made, last year there were 10 guys on offense we didn't know we were going to have. But we were putting in a system of offensive football together to accommodate who we had at that time, and that's exactly the same process we have to go through defensively.”

Chances are good it yields similar results, too.