LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Simple, boring, unimaginative. They’re all fair descriptions of the defensive scheme employed by the Chicago Bears.
The one that resonates most, yet isn’t used much, however, is effective.
“If we had our ‘rathers’, we would rather play zone and have everyone looking at the ball,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “That’s the way you take the ball away, when everyone is looking at the quarterback throwing the ball, and our defensive line has helped us to do that.”
The numbers definitely bear that out. Chicago’s ability to excel without utilizing the blitz has been one of the main keys to the club’s success. When the Bears rush with just their front four, they rank first in three of four important defensive categories, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
The club ranks first in yards per attempt (6.0), opponent passer rating (68.0) and attempts per first down (3.5), and second in interceptions (13) when rushing with just the front four.
“We’re doing a couple things really well, so we’re going to keep doing them, I think. You kind of figure out when the season starts what you want to do, what you think you can do. If you need to blitz to get pressure, you better blitz. If you don’t have to blitz, then why should you? You’re just taking risks,” linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “We haven’t had to do it a lot. When we do it, we’ve gotten there, which has been good. But our front four, our front seven, eight -- whatever you want to call them -- they’ve done a good job for us.”
Reserve defensive tackle Marcus Harrison credits a good portion of the success to the meticulous preparation of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who “always warns you ahead of time that he’s going to repeat himself a lot at meetings. But that’s been a good thing.”
There’s no question about the acquisition of defensive end Julius Peppers serving as perhaps the most significant factor in the team’s reluctance to attempt to manufacture pressure with linebackers and defensive backs. There’s no need to do that as long as Peppers continues to gobble up double teams along the line, freeing up others in the front four to make plays.
Defensive end Israel Idonije has been a direct beneficiary. The team’s leader in sacks (6.5), Idonije started the season with eight career sacks in 86 games, and is already close to surpassing those numbers.
The front seven also receives help from an always-rotating front four that includes starters Idonije and Peppers on the ends, and Matt Toeaina and Anthony Anderson in the middle, bolstered by reserves Tommie Harris, Henry Melton, and Harrison.
“The system does work. But the system is built on discipline and relentless effort,” Idonije said. “So if you don’t have guys that can play in that system, it’s tough. If you play disciplined and read your keys, the system works. This year, guys are more tuned in. We have a real disciplined group of guys, so things are working well.”
So well that opponents -- despite knowing what the Bears are doing -- struggle to move the ball on them. The Bears rank fourth in total defense, and second in scoring defense, and have run the same system since Smith took over the team in 2004.
Interestingly, the Bears are one of the few true Cover-2 teams remaining in the NFL.
“No doubt. We haven’t changed a whole lot,” Urlacher said. “I mean, people will say they know what defense we’re in, but they really can’t do much about it. Everyone says they know what we’re doing, we’re simple, we do this, we do that. But they still have a hard time moving the ball on us, and they’ve still got to beat it. Having the same guys out there every week is a big deal. We rotate guys up front like crazy. We rotate seven or eight guys every game, and that’s big to keep those guys fresh and keep them going in the fourth quarter.”