The Panthers need tackles, the Saints need pass-rushers, the Bucs need a safety, while the conference champs need help on... offense?
01 Dec 2005
by Michael David Smith
The Chicago Bears' great 46 defense got its name not, as many assume, by using four linemen and six linebackers. Rather, the name came from the jersey number of a safety named Doug Plank, who didn't get much credit but played an important role in coordinator Buddy Ryan's scheme.
Twenty years later, the Bears have a defense every bit as good as that unit, and there's another safety who wears No. 46 and doesn't get much credit but plays an important role.
That player, rookie free safety Chris Harris, a fifth-round pick out of Louisiana-Monroe, is Chicago's only new defensive starter and a major reason that the defense has transformed from OK in 2004 to by far the best in the league in 2005.
Harris showed in Sunday's 13-10 Chicago victory at Tampa Bay that hehas the mentality of a linebacker in run support. On a first-and-10 Cadillac Williams run off the right tackle in the first quarter, Harris read run all the way, sprinted to the line of scrimmage immediately when Simms handed off, met Williams at the line and stopped him for no gain.
Harris especially shines in the red zone, where he can concentrate on what's in front of him and not worry about being beaten deep. On first-and-10 from the Chicago 11 with 3:43 left in the game and Tampa Bay looking to take its first lead, Williams took a handoff up the middle. Harris, lined up five yards off the line of scrimmage and in the middle of the field, made a beeline toward Williams and tackled him for a gain of two yards. The most impressive thing about the play wasn't the tackle but the way Harris fought off a block from Bucs guard Sean Mahan. Safeties who weigh 205 pounds aren't supposed to be able to run through blocks from guards who weigh 301 pounds, but Harris shoved Mahan out of the way easily.
In pass coverage the best thing about Harris is how easy it is to watch the Bears without noticing him. He didn't make any tackles on passing plays Sunday, not because he's not active against the pass but because Tampa Bay didn't throw in his direction. That indicates that, although the national media haven't picked up on Harris yet, Tampa Bay has. Harris, who also plays special teams, is a complete player.
As a late-round pick, Harris fits right in on the Chicago defense. The Bears drafted nine of their 11 starters, but only two of them are first-round picks. Chicago's front office has taken a lot of grief (and justifiably so) for its failure to find a quarterback, but its draft record on the other side of the ball is outstanding. From 2002 to 2004, Chicago's fourth-round picks were end Alex Brown, tackle Ian Scott and cornerback Nathan Vasher. Very few teams have three straight first-round picks that good.
The major reason no one noticed Harris Sunday is that everyone was heaping praise on Brown. He earned that praise. On third-and-8 on Tampa Bay's first drive, Brown got into a sprinter's stance and lined up to the outside shoulder of tight end Anthony Becht. Brown guessed the snap count and sprang out of his stance a split second before Becht could move. When he passed Becht he lunged at Simms, knocking the ball out of his hand. Simms had Michael Pittman open out of the backfield, but Brown got to him so quickly that he didn't even have time to look in Pittman's direction. Chicago recovered on the 1-yard line and scored on the next play.
Brown got such a good jump on the snap that he either knew Tampa Bay's cadence or saw that the play clock was about to expire and took off. It would seem reasonable to think that to combat the Bears' pass rush, teams would use long snap counts to get the defensive line to jump offside. Tampa Bay tried that, but never successfully. On one play Brown did jump on a hard count by Simms, but center John Wade didn't realize it in time to snap the ball. (On the same play, Wade was called for holding Chicago tackle Tank Johnson. Not exactly a play for Wade's personal highlight reel.) The only penalties involving Chicago's defensive line Sunday were the ones the Bears forced the Bucs to commit -- the officials flagged Tampa Bay linemen for holding three times and also called Simms for intentional grounding.
Brown looks like he can do just about anything, even cover the tight end. On a second-and-12, Brown lined up opposite Becht, jammed him at the line, and then dropped into coverage. When Simms threw to Becht at the sideline, Brown looked like a defensive back knocking down the pass.
Bucs right tackle Kenyatta Walker was lucky Brown had such a big game against left tackle Anthony Davis because it helped hide Adewale Ogunleye's dominance over Walker. Ogunleye had two sacks and forced Walker to hold him a few times, although the officials only called it once. Both Brown and Ogunleye rely heavily on the speed move to the outside, which should make Chicago susceptible to draws. That doesn't happen often, though, because the linebackers rarely blitz and can stay at home against the run.
The single most impressive play of the day by a defensive end came from Tommie Harris. He usually plays tackle, but he took a turn at end and fought through the blocks of Mike Alstott, Walker, and Pittman, beating all three of them quickly enough to force Simms to throw the ball away. Simms should have been called for intentional grounding. On the next play, Brown rushed Simms into throwing the ball away, and this time Simms was flagged for intentional grounding.
Harris is probably the best, but Chicago has four good defensive tackles. In general, Chicago uses Johnson and Harris at tackle in passing situations, and Ian Scott and Alfonso Boone in running situations. But the whole four-man rotation is a versatile group. (It's official Be Nice to Lions Fans Day, so no reminders that Matt Millen cut Boone, please.)
Chicago's dominance began with Tampa's first play from scrimmage, when Williams tried to run around the left end. Vasher was unblocked, forcing Williams to cut inside, where he slipped as he crossed the line of scrimmage and gained a yard. On second-and-9, Alstott took a handoff and tried to follow the lead block of the pulling guard, Mahan. But linebacker Lance Briggs ran past Mahan's block and dove at Alstott's feet, taking him down for a gain of a yard. You already know what happened on third down; there was no fourth down.
In response to that first series, the Bucs did two smart things on its second possession. First, they had Simms take only a three-step drop, not giving Chicago's defensive line time to get to him. Second, they called a play to Joey Galloway, who was covered by cornerback Charles Tillman. Tillman gave Galloway too big a cushion, and Galloway caught the pass and picked up 12 yards. Later in the first quarter, on third-and-5, the Bears did something very rare: they blitzed two linebackers, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Simms did an excellent job of evading the rush and found Galloway, again covered by Tillman, for a 39-yard gain along the right sideline. If Tillman can't stop receivers from getting behind him, teams are going to continue to exploit it.
Tillman has covered the opposing team's top receiver the last two weeks, and he has struggled. When throwing to Galloway, Simms was 7-of-8 for 138 yards. But on all of Simms' other passes, he was 12-of-22 for 64 yards. A week earlier, Jake Delhomme was 14-of-20 for 169 yards when throwing to Steve Smith, and was 8-of-16 for 66 yards and two interceptions when throwing to everyone else. Tillman was great as a rookie in 2003 but missed half of last season with a knee injury and didn't look good even when healthy. He probably shouldn't cover the opposing team's best receiver, although the Bears won't face any more teams that rely as heavily on their top receiver as the Panthers and Bucs do.
Elsewhere in the secondary, strong safety Mike Brown gets more media attention than his fellow safety, Harris, but he's nowhere near as good in run support. On a first-and-10 run up the middle by Williams, Brown's responsibility was to fill the hole, which he did â€” but Williams ran him over for a gain of five. Brown has a reputation for dishing out hits over the middle, but he needs to improve on form tackling when meeting a running back near the line of scrimmage. Late in the game, when Cadillac Williams ran eight yards to set up a first-and-goal, Brown was stacked in the box but tight end Alex Smith buried him. Williams ran right behind Smith for a gain of eight.
Even though Brown and Tillman didn't have great games, Chicago has an amazing amount of depth in the secondary. Todd Johnson, a backup safety, is great in punt coverage and a player to keep an eye on. He delivered a brutal hit on Tampa Bay return man Mark Jones.
Chicago is so good against the pass in large part because the defensive linemen generate such an effective pass rush that the linebackers can eschew the blitz. Instead they're free to hang back and eliminate the underneath throws to tight ends and running backs, meaning quarterbacks don't have a safety valve. But one Chicago linebacker had a bad game in pass coverage, and Gruden made good late-game adjustments, allowing Tampa Bay to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter and get into field goal range for a potential game-tying field goal.
The weak spot on the front seven is strong side linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer. It was no accident that all three of Tampa Bay's tight ends caught passes on Tampa Bay's touchdown drive. Simms looked for the player Hillenmeyer covered on almost every play of that drive, which is why he ignored Galloway and threw all six of his passes to either a tight end or a fullback. Dave Moore is a rarely used tight end, but Simms saw that Hillenmeyer was covering him and hit him for a first down. Later, Simms hit Becht, covered by Hillenmeyer, for a gain of six on second-and-9. On one play when Simms hit tight end Alex Smith for a gain of 10 yards, Hillenmeyer was in coverage and made two mistakes: first he gave Smith too much room to get open, and then he missed the tackle.
Even when Simms couldn't complete a pass, Hillenmeyer made mistakes. On first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Simms rolled to his left, with Hillenmeyer covering Becht on the left side of the end zone. Hillenmeyer inexplicably gave up on his coverage to try to make a tackle on Simms even though Simms didn't look like he wanted to run, and that left Becht open. Fortunately for Hillenmeyer, Simms' pass was a little low and Becht couldn't come up with it. (Tampa Bay scored on the next play as Alstott leaped over the pile â€“ Alstott has looked rejuvenated the last few weeks when he gets the ball near the goal line.)
Hillenmeyer isn't great against the run, either. On a second-and-2, Alstott had the lead block and knocked Hillenmeyer back about three yards as Williams picked up the first down.
The other outside linebacker, Lance Briggs, is much better. On a first-and-10, Simms felt a pass rush from the front four and dumped the ball off to Williams, but Briggs read it and tackled Williams for a two-yard loss. Briggs has great pursuit. On an earlier play when Williams took a handoff up the middle and saw nothing there, he bounced to the outside, but Briggs ran him down for a gain of only a yard.
The Bears are 8-3 even though, as Aaron Schatz pointed out in this week's power rankings, they have subpar special teams and one of the league's worst passing attacks. The Bears have also had a bit of good luck, and Tampa Bay kicker Matt Bryant added to that by missing a 29-yard field goal that would have tied the game late. Chicago also fumbled three times and recovered all of them plus Tampa Bay's only fumble.
But despite the offensive struggles, and even when they don't get the lucky breaks, this defense means the Bears can play with anyone in the NFC.
Can it possibly be true, as stated above, that this defense is as good as the legendary 1985 unit? Through 11 games, yes. But the '85 Bears cemented their legacy in the playoffs, when they shut out their first two opponents and dominated the Super Bowl. It's probably overly optimistic to think these Bears can match that, but no offense will want to find out in Soldier Field in January.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.
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