Moon: Bears DL rotation healthy, top in the NFL?


Moon: Bears DL rotation healthy, top in the NFL?

Friday, Dec. 3, 2010
11:49 a.m.
By John Mullin

The players dont particularly like it, and the coaches know that but do it anyway. But it is perhaps the biggest collective reason why the Bears are in the debate over the NFLs top defenses and why no defensive lineman has been on the inactive list because of injury.... there've been 1-2 inactive every week, just not for injury

Since Lovie Smith arrived as head coach the Bears have employed and thrived on a defensive-line philosophy built around a rotation of players, even starters, even the premier players. And it is to some extent now being run by the players themselves, putting players in places some have never been before.

Defensive tackle Marcus Harrison, the Bears biggest defensive lineman at 315 pounds, suddenly appeared at end. Julius Peppers was considering jumping down inside from end to tackle at one point. Defensive tackle Henry Melton has moved out to Peppers spot at end on occasion, with 2 sacks to show for his efforts.

The result has contributed to days like last Sunday when the defensive line sacked Michael Vick four times while simultaneously holding one of the NFLs best rushing offenses to nearly 50 yards below its average.

Defenses have gone to rotating substitutions against Vick this season. But Bears players already were accustomed to coming off the bench with throttles wide open, sometimes an art in itself for a sub who for most of his college career was a star and every down player. Bears defensive linemen are used to being a full power immediately.

Against Philadelphia you really dont have any choice but to play a rotation, said defensive tackle Tommie Harris. Luckily were used to playing a rotation and in a game like that, it comes in handy because you really cant just have the same front four out there all the time chasing him down. When we rotate, we can do it.

The effects of freshness appear to be cumulative. The Bears had 2 sacks, total, through the first three games. They had 11 in the last three.

The Bears do have situational players whose appearances are dictated by downs and distances: a run-stopper here who comes out on obvious passing downs, a speed rusher there who drops in as his replacement.

But beyond those, their order of battle becomes particularly interesting.
Sound reasoning

The Bears have two solid reasons for preferring a rotation. One is that it keeps players fresh in a system where coaches demand that linemen play at maximum on all plays.

The other is because, well, they can.

Im not bragging, Harrison said, but as a defensive front, were so deep and talented that we can afford to do that.

Melton, who has become a key part of the rotation and positioning, is more blunt.

Some teams dont have the pleasure of rotating, Melton said. Theyve got to keep their guys in because their second string isnt that good. But were deep here. Once one of us gets winded, we can get a break and bring in a guy whos good and whos ready.

Rotation for rotations sake is not the program, nor do the Bears practice it or advocate it for all positions. Safety, yes. Linebacker, no. Offensive line, no. Wide receiver, yes. Cornerback no.

Defensive line, absolutely.

Some positions you can do that, Smith said. Defensive line, with the pace that we ask the guys to play. None of them can play the way we want them to without taking a few plays off.

Funky options

Where those players come in, as well as when, is where the Bears rotation becomes particularly intriguing. While some early game substitutions are scripted and assigned by coaches, the players are given increasing latitude and responsibility for managing themselves rather than leaving it all on coaches or coordinator Rod Marinelli to remember a change or notice a player in need of relief.

Thats what Rod tells us, to watch our guy, Harrison said. It doesnt matter how many plays you go; Rod just wants you at your best. When we see one of our guys tired or winded, were already rotating. We dont wait or ask; were just paying attention to our position.

Im the fourth end so Henry will go in before me. But if Henry is gassed or playing the 3 technique, tackle, I know where Im supposed to go. We communicate on and off the field and thats really the key.

A defensive lineman may start onto the field but he is not making the change himself. The player in the game is involved in the communication and decisions are worked out.

When Peppers was considering the jump to tackle, he was talking about that with Melton.

We have a deep rotation and if you feel comfortable somewhere, you can switch with a guy, Melton said. Pep was talking to me about rushing inside.

If they had their druthers

A debate always is whether it is better to be fresher vs. being able to work against your opposing offensive lineman over time, setting him up on first down for a move on third or a series later.

Being on the field consistently is better, in my opinion, said defensive end Israel Idonije, who began this season in a rotation with since-released Mark Anderson, himself a situation pass rusher as a rookie. Being on the field, getting the reps, getting into a rhythm, just getting a feel for the game, I think you get into a better rhythm that way rather than rotating six plays in, six plays off.

Its tough to get in a rhythm that way and get into the flow of the game, setting a guy up. I think being able to get in consistently and get a feel for the game, how I want to rush and attack a guy, getting that helps production and overall play.

The sentiment is understandable, and understood. Lovie Smith was a linebacker and strong safety as a player at Tulsa so he can relate to players wanting to play, period.

But there are other factors at work, including the fact that the Bears have more than just four players at starter level.

You do want to be the guy. Smith acknowledged. You dont want to be in a rotation. Players want to play as much as they can but in the long run its not all bad to be in a rotation over the course of a long season and what they go through. You can be fresher to come in and you may have a guy whos best suited for a certain situation.

Guys would like to play every down. You start with that. But when you have a few players that you would like, guys realize that they deserve to play too.

John "Moon" Mullin is's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

No hard feelings between John Fox and Jay Cutler, but no clear future, either

No hard feelings between John Fox and Jay Cutler, but no clear future, either

Jay Cutler returned to practice as he left it before the Week 2 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, in which he suffered a thumb injury that sidelined him for the past five games. He was back as the No. 1 quarterback.

But the landscape changed over those five weeks, at least outwardly, with Brian Hoyer filling in with a succession of 300-yard passing games and coach John Fox indicating that as long as Hoyer was performing well, he could hold onto the job.

Now Hoyer is gone to IR with a broken left arm suffered in a Week 7 loss to the Green Bay Packers and Cutler returns to a situation where his head coach’s endorsement and support has appeared conditional.

“He doesn’t have a choice, I guess, at this point,” Cutler said on Tuesday. “Brian is out, so I’ve got to go. I’ve had good conversations with Foxy this week, last week, the week before. There’s never been any strain in our relationship. We’re both very open and honest, and we’re on the same page. We just want to win football games.”

Fox has been ripped in some quarters for what was taken as creating a quarterback controversy. In fact, consistent with a competition mantra that has applied to every position since the end of last season, Fox supported each quarterback when their time was at hand: Hoyer when Hoyer was performing well, and Cutler now that he is back.

Bill Belichick made it clear that, regardless of how well Jimmy Garappolo played for his New England Patriots, Tom Brady would be back as the starter when his four-game suspension was over. Cutler has not established a Brady lock on the position.

Speaking about the running back situation, where one-time starter Jeremy Langford is returning from injury to find Ka’Deem Carey and Jordan Howard in front of him, Fox laid out the NFL reality, which applies to the Cutler-Howard situation.

“Earlier in the season I mentioned that way back in the day, if you were the starter, when you got hurt, it was yours when you came back,” Fox said. “Well, that’s not really the case as much anymore. It can be; you’re going to play the best guy and there’s competition to be involved in that.”

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The broader issue overhanging Cutler is whether the Bears plan to bring him back in 2017. This season has been bluntly described as a prove-it year for Cutler, who has no guaranteed contract money after this year, and Cutler has not proven a great deal in seven quarters of football, with a 75.7 passer rating, one TD pass and two interceptions.

Whether that is regressing from last year to levels closer to his career standards is what the next several weeks will reveal. At this level, the Bears would be unlikely to pay Cutler $15 million in 2017.

“I think those are conversations for the end of the year,” Cutler said. “Right now I’m working with Dowell [Loggains, offensive coordinator] and ‘Rags’ [QB coach Dave Ragone] and we’re just trying to find first downs and get our third-down conversion rate back up, score more points. That’s all we’re really trying to do and that’s all my focus is.

“Whatever happens at the end of the year, it’s supposed to happen, and we’ll go accordingly. But right now it’s not something that I worry about. It’s my 11th year, my eighth year here. I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, and it’s how it goes. At the end of the year, we can have those conversations. Whatever happens, happens.”

As far as the best way to handle the inevitable questions about the future, “I think ignoring it is,” Cutler said. “I think it's going to be there; you can't completely ignore it.”

Bears In-Foe: Vikings defense is Purple People Eaters, Part II

Bears In-Foe: Vikings defense is Purple People Eaters, Part II

It's bad enough that Jay Cutler will be rusty and he may not have Kyle Long and Josh Sitton protecting him. But even if all the Bears' offensive hands were on deck, Monday night's challenge would've been formidable anyway.

The Vikings' defense leads the league in fewest yards allowed (279.5 per game), is tied for the league-lead in allowing fewest points (14.0), third in rushing defense (81.7), fourth in pass defense (197.8), and sixth in third-down defense (34.2 percent). And oh yeah, they lead the league in turnover ratio (plus-11), courtesy of their nine interceptions (tied for second), seven fumble recoveries and 19 sacks (seventh-most in the NFL).

It's nice to have quality and depth up front. That's where that push comes from, especially off the edges, with ends Brian Robison, Everson Griffen and sophomore Danielle Hunter supplying four sacks apiece. That trio combined for 21.5 sacks a year ago (when the Bears totaled 35 as a team). And while injury-prone Sharrif Floyd finds himself sidelined again since the opener, tackle Linval Joseph (three sacks) is back playing at the All-Pro level he was at a year ago before an ankle injury slowed him. And Tom Johnson contributed 6.5 sacks a year ago rotating in with Floyd at three-technique.

[RELATED: Bears In-Foe: Purple a fitting color for Vikings' battered, bruised offense]

Reunited UCLA linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are in their second year together in a run the Bears will likely have to deal with for another decade. This is the 11th and final year they'll see Chad Greenway, who's more leader than playmaker now in the middle of that defense.

Ryan Pace, Vic Fangio and position coach Ed Donatell must also be jealous of the Vikings' deep defensive backfield. Top cover man Xavier Rhodes, last year's top pick Trae Waynes and Andrew Sendejo have two picks each. Waynes still hasn't taken a job away from ageless 37-year-old Terence Newman. The Vikes were trying to upgrade on Sendejo, who answered the challenge and should be able to play Monday after departing the Eagles game with an ankle injury he suffered almost taking an interception to the house. It's almost unfair that second-round rookie Mackensie Alexander can't even surpass fourth cornerback Captain Munnerlyn for playing time.

But we must not forget Harrison Smith. The humble Golden Domer, humorously nicknamed "Gangsta White Boy" by Adrian Peterson, became the NFL's richest safety by inking a five-year, $51 million deal this summer, is coming off a first Pro Bowl that probably would've come sooner if not for a couple injuries. Two of his four career pick-sixes have come against the Bears, and Pro Football Focus has him as the only safety to grade positively in coverage, run support, and pass rush over each of the last two seasons.

Special teams

Just as Robbie Gould fell under the microscope of the current Bears brass with last season's rough finish, the strong-legged Blair Walsh probably feels a few more eyes on him after missing the 27-yard game-winning attempt in the frigid playoff loss to Seattle. He's 10-of-13 on field goals this season, 11-of-13 on extra points.

But while the Vikings' kickoff coverage was burned by Josh Huff's return Sunday in Philadelphia, the Bears coverage units have to be disciplined and smart against Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels. Both have burned the Bears more than once before. With more than his seven kick returns, Patterson's 29.9 average would lead the league. Sherels' 14.6-yard return average on punts ranks third in the NFL. He's already returned two for touchdowns this season after burning the Bears at Soldier Field a year to the day short of Monday's contest.