A lot went wrong for the Bears in 2014, and quarterback Jay Cutler was given most of the blame. While he was certainly responsible for a fair share of Chicago’s failures, he was not the only issue. Their biggest problems instead came on the defensive side of the ball.
Injuries were a significant factor in the Bears finishing with the 2nd worst scoring defense in the NFL last season. Cornerback Charles Tillman missed 14 games. Linebacker Lance Briggs missed 8 games. Defensive tackle Jay Ratliff missed 5 and defensive end Lamarr Houston missed 8 games after injuring himself while celebrating his only sack of the season (which came against a backup quarterback when the Bears were trailing by 25 points with 3 minutes left in the game).
When a team faces lots of injuries on defense, it limits what they can do schematically. Most coaches prefer not to overload their new fill-ins with complicated assignments. This is exactly what happened with the Bears. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker elected to play with mostly vanilla or straight-forward schemes. However, it has to be noted that his defense was not very complicated even before the injuries started piling up.
But even with your personnel changing week-to-week, you still have to implement some kind of game plan that accounts specifically for the opponent. Tucker didn’t do so. All you have to do is go back and watch the Bears’ week 8 game vs. the Patriots and see how they did nothing to account for Rob Gronkowski, instead electing to treat him as if he was just another tight end.
The Bears were a predominant zone coverage team in 2014. They were very predictable and rigid as a defense, failing to make adjustments for situations that called for it. The play below is a great example. This was against Carolina in Week 5. It was 3rd-and-3 with 3 minutes left in the 4th quarter. The game was tied at 24 and the Panthers were already in field goal range. The Bears needed to be aggressive and make a play so as not to allow the Panthers to eat up clock or potentially have more shots at a touchdown. But what did they do? They played their normal soft cover 3 zone. That yellow line is the first-down marker.
At the snap, both Bears cornerbacks dropped back to cover their deep 3rd zones. At the top of quarterback Cam Newton’s drop, both corners were at least 4 yards behind the first down marker.
Tight end Greg Olsen ran an out-route 7 yards beyond the first down marker and still had cushion against the corner to his side.
The result was an 11-yard completion and a first down.
That’s way too easy of a completion for 3rd-and-3 in such a pivotal moment of the game. Instead of forcing the other team to make a play and earn a first down, Tucker used a safe approach that seemed geared towards not allowing a big completion over the top, which makes little sense in that situation. This passive approach backfired as the Panthers eventually scored a touchdown on the drive anyway.
Because of how predictable the defense was in 2014, opposing offenses knew where Bears defenders would align, and this made it easy to identify where to attack. Chicago linebackers and safeties were targeted with ease through the air. The timing of the passing game wasn’t an issue for offenses because the Bears did not jam at the line of scrimmage or disrupt receivers. This made it difficult for their pass rush (which wasn’t great to begin with) to get to the quarterback because the ball was out of his hand so quickly.
Talent was also an issue for the Bears. Some teams (like the Seahawks) can get away with playing the same defense over and over because they are talented enough to do so. The Bears were not. They couldn’t defend the pass, and the defensive line got driven off the ball regularly in the running game. The Bears defense had control over nothing in 2014, and the team finished 5-11 as a result.
In 2015, the Bears will look a lot different, which in of itself is an improvement. New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will implement his 3-4 defense, which will give the Bears the ability to throw more looks at the offense.
The Bears also have already addressed two positions that needed help. They upgraded at safety to Antrel Rolle. They also brought in former Ravens outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, who was a real pain for offensive lines to deal with when he played in Baltimore. McPhee had the speed and power to play on the edge as well as inside. He often played inside in obvious passing situations in Baltimore.
The Bears still need help in many places, though. The D-line was a problem in 2014. There are holes at inside linebacker. More depth is needed at cornerback. The Bears also have questions to answer about some of their personnel switching to a 3-4, including 2012 1st-round pick Shea McClellin and defensive end Jared Allen. Allen is not a great fit for a base 3-4, but every team has the need for a rusher like Allen. No 3-4 team uses their base alignment at all times. In nickel and dime, most teams go to a 4-down alignment, and this is where Allen could still thrive despite his diminished skills. The Bears also will likely use him as the rush linebacker in their base 3-4, which means he would rush the quarterback most of the time anyway.
The Bears will surely continue to address the defense through free agency and the Draft. They have needs in plenty of other areas as well, though. Their offensive line, for instance, couldn’t generate any push in the running game last year, and they failed to give Cutler much time in the pocket. Right guard Kyle Long is their best lineman, but the rest of this unit needs upgrading.
Any team in the NFL can go from cellar-dweller to first place in a year. We’ve seen it multiple times. While John Fox might not be a top-tier head coach, he has shown the ability to turn bad teams around quickly. He did so in Carolina, reaching the Super Bowl 2 years after a 1-15 finish. He did so in Denver as well, leading the Broncos from a 4-12 finish to 4 straight division titles, including one with Tim Tebow as his quarterback. There is no reason to believe that Fox can’t do the same in Chicago in 2015. But it starts with the defense, which still needs to add more pieces.