New Chicago Bears coach John Fox admitted Monday during his introductory news conference that he’s not tied to a specific front on defense.
But with the club’s hiring Tuesday of former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, all indications point to the Bears making the transition to a 3-4 scheme at some point, even if they decide in 2015 to utilize more of a hybrid attack.
“Spending 25 years in this league as a head coach or a defensive coach, I think sometimes maybe on the outside more is made of [a defensive front] than reality,” Fox said. “We’re going to put our players in the best position for them to have success, and that’s how we’re going to earn their respect moving forward because they know we can help that. Whether that’s a 3-4 or 4-3 has not been determined yet.”
The majority of Fox’s background places him with 4-3 defenses, while Fangio has served primarily as an architect of 3-4 schemes, having worked in the past with Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers at Carolina (1995-98) and Houston (2002-05).
“I’ve got so much respect for him,” Capers said of Fangio in 2011. “He is so intelligent. He knows what he is doing. He understands the game.”
Once Fox finally assembles the staff and turns his attention to schemes, there’s a good chance he’ll defer to Fangio regarding the direction of the defense. That means new general manager Ryan Pace and the club’s personnel department need to start acquiring the requisite talent to make the move.
Even if the Bears decided to continue operating out of a 4-3 look, the talent -- specifically at linebacker and in the secondary -- needs to be upgraded significantly.
Let’s take a look at some of the club’s current front-seven defenders to figure out who might be fits for a 3-4 scheme:
DT Ego Ferguson: Ferguson’s size and skill set make him more of an ideal fit in a 4-3 scheme. His best position in a three-man front would likely be at end. Ferguson would have to bulk up some to play the nose in a 3-4.
DT Jeremiah Ratliff: Interestingly, Ratliff, at 303 pounds, is listed as 12 pounds lighter than Ferguson. But Ratliff has extensive experience as a 3-4 nose tackle, dating to his time with the Dallas Cowboys, and at one time he was considered one of the best at the position. Playing in a three-man front also put lots of wear and tear on Ratliff’s body. When Ratliff first came into the league in 2005, it was believed he didn’t possess the size to play nose in a 3-4. So his ascension was somewhat rare. But he’s certainly capable of making the move. Keep in mind, Ratliff played in more of a penetrating one-gapping 3-4 scheme in Dallas.
DE Lamarr Houston: Since coming into the league as a 305-pound defensive tackle, Houston has gradually dropped weight and in 2013 he basically played in Oakland as an outside pass-rushing linebacker, which naturally led to some of his struggles in 2014 at defensive end, according to a former Bears staffer. Houston is listed at 300 pounds but played last season at around 275 to 280 pounds. So if Houston drops to the 270-pound range, he possibly play outside linebacker on the strong side in a 3-4. If Houston stays at end, he’d have to get into the 300-pound range.
LB Shea McClellin: Ideal size for a 3-4 weak outside linebacker is around 6-3 and 245 pounds, and that’s exactly the size the team lists McClellin, who was projected as a 3-4 linebacker coming out of Boise State in 2012. Maybe the new staff can finally coax the best from McClellin.
LB Christian Jones: Played two outside linebacker spots and defensive end at Florida State, so Jones possesses the versatility and athleticism to make the move. Jones fits a 3-4 scheme as a rush linebacker.
LB Jonathan Bostic: Inside linebacker in a 3-4 is very similar to the middle linebacker spot in a 4-3. The difference is 3-4 inside linebackers don’t have to cover as much ground as 4-3 middle linebackers. So Bostic fits, but he’d struggle fighting off blocks at the point of attack, which is what we’ve seen throughout his two seasons with the Bears.
DE Jared Allen: Allen probably could serve as a rush linebacker on passing downs, but he’ll be 33 next season and isn’t interested in moving from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. There was talk prior to the 2012 season of the Vikings moving to a 3-4 scheme. Here’s what Allen had to say about that back then: “I want to end my career as a defensive end. And I'm not playing a 2-gap, let me just throw that out the window now.[Moving to a 3-4 scheme] is something that will be addressed if and when it happens. I know that we have enough mutual respect for each other that they would at least give me a head's up and give me an option of what I would want to do. I don't see that in the future."
DT Stephen Paea: Although he possesses the strength and athleticism to play in a 3-4, Paea doesn’t have the physical dimensions at 6-1, 300 pounds. If Fangio and the Bears utilize a one-gap 3-4 scheme, Paea might fit. But that’s doubtful.
DT Will Sutton: Sutton’s is similar to Paea in size, but he’s not nearly as strong or as athletic. Sutton looked like a bust as a 4-3 defensive tackle, and he’d definitely be out of place in a three-man front.
DE Willie Young: Coming off a 10-sack 2014 season, Young is rehabbing from a ruptured Achilles tendon. But at 6-4, 251 pounds, Young doesn’t possess the size to play defensive end in a 3-4. But that’s not to say he can’t bulk up or maybe even drop a few pounds to move to outside linebacker. At outside linebacker in a 3-4 there would probably be questions about whether Young moves well enough in space. Either way, if the Bears move the 3-4 direction, it will be interesting to see how Young might fit.