Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

01 Dec 2005

Every Play Counts: New Monsters of the Midway

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 — 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 – 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.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 01 Dec 2005

34 comments, Last at 06 Dec 2005, 10:18pm by someone

Comments

1
by NFC Central Freak (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 11:15am

MDS:

Great work.

Hillenmeyer is a smart kid (39 on his Wonderlic) but physically limited. He just cannot make all the plays. But he keeps a job because he's disciplined and maintains his assignmenets (most of the time).

The great thing about the D is nobody is over the age of 27. So with some luck and good cap management this group should be in place for a few years.

2
by JG (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 11:48am

Hillenmeyer also keeps his job because his main competition on the roster, Joe Odom and Marcus Reeses, are both on IR.

3
by JG (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 11:50am

Great article MDS. I agree with you completely, especially about Chris Harris. I think Chicago has one of the best pairs of safties in the leage, and Harris was a 6th rounder and Brown was "Mr. Irrelevant" a few years back.

4
by Tim (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 12:16pm

I believe I read that all the starters are under contract for next year and I think only one or two will become FA in 2007.

5
by Tim (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 12:18pm

RE #3

Brown was a second round pick the same year Urlacher was drafted. Mike Green was Mr. Irrelevant I believe the same year.

6
by JonL (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 12:25pm

Really nice article. Is there any particular reason the Bears don't get someone else like a safety to cover tight ends?

7
by paytonrules (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 12:50pm

Nice article.

Is it just me or has Urlacher reduced his tackle total by getting better in pass coverage? What I mean is in the past teams would throw in his zone only to see the guy wrapped up immediately. Still a 7 yard gain. Now they don't even throw there. It's awful hard to tell what's going on over on that side of the field though on TV.

8
by Nate (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 2:17pm

Nice article. My favorite EPC of the year so far. A couple things:
1) Mike Brown had, probably, his worst game of the year on Sunday. I was shocked when he missed the first tackle (on the 12 or 14 yard Caddy run). When he missed the second tackle (on Alex Smith), I just chalked it up to one of those days.
2) I'm not sure if you noticed, but Chris Harris has a bad habit of throwing his shoulder around without wrapping up. He hits hard, but doesn't finish some tackles. Still, he plays better than any rookie 6th round safety has a right to.
3) Both ends drop into coverage quite a bit. We zone blitz a lot.
4) Just to put the '85 Bears defense into perspective, take a look at the number of takeaways and sacks the '85 Bears compared to this years defense. It's not even close. The '85 Bears kicked some ass.

9
by JG (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 2:18pm

RE 7:
A big reason Urlacher's tackle total has decreased is the sceme. In the Rivera/Lovie cover 2 defense the linebackers have certain gaps to cover, no matter what. They don't go after the play, they cover their gap. In years past Urlacher used to be making tackles all over the field because he was so fast and the outside linebackers where a bit weak. I think a large part of QBs not throwing his way is that with ony a 4 man rush the linebackers are all clogging up the middle of the field short passing lanes and that makes it a lot harder to find an open guy.

10
by James, London (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 2:21pm

Another really good EPC. I've only seen the Bears once this year, against the Saints, so it's great to get a breakdown of their D.

"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."

Am I the only person who is suprised that a TE was left to block one of the better DEs in the league with no help at all?

11
by Craig (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 2:23pm

#1

Where did you get info on Hillenmeyer's Wondelic score? I didn't realize that info was available to the public.

12
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 2:26pm

Having one outside pass rusher who can force an offensive coordinator to consider using two blockers to handle makes pass defense multiples easier. Having two makes pass defense exponentially easier. Toss in a defensive tackle who can collapse the pocket and, well, you have a defense that gives up about eleven points a game.

If Brad Johnson had decided to sign with the Bears instead of the Vikings, he would have had an excellent chance to get a second Super Bowl ring.

13
by Michael David Smith :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 2:42pm

Are Urlacher's tackle numbers down that much this year? Tackles per game for Urlacher, according to NFL.com:

05: 7.1
04: 7.8
03: 7.3
02: 9.4
01: 7.3
00: 7.8

14
by NFC Central Freak (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 2:48pm

Craig:

It's not. I got that from one of my Packer sources after the Bears picked him up.

I almost threw up when the Bears drafted Harris because his Wonderlic was 13, his rep at OK was that he was lazy, and he has the body type I associate of someone putting on weight rather easily. Man, did I whiff on THAT one.

I find it personally amusing that after having a fetish in drafting galactically stupid people Torrance Marshall and Robert Ferguson Mike Sherman then lurched in the other direction in drafting guys like Hillenmeyer. And while he keeps Marshall on the team for FOUR years he cuts Hunter after one game.

I really have no idea how Packer fans haven't done a collective leap off the the Hutson Center.

And folks try and tell me that Sherman was an ok GM who just made the usual number of mistakes on draft day.

RIIIIGGGGHHHTTTT.

The Tampa's coaching staff decision on blocking schemes was just weird. Both Bears ends dominated when blocked straight up and against the TE they ran amok. Though Harris had the bull rush of the day when he lined up at end and plowed through a tackle, a TE, and a running back to knock Simms over just as he released.

God I love this defense..........

15
by Will Allen (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 3:09pm

Freak, when McCombs was handling pennies like manhole covers, it drove me nuts to see the Vikings stand by and not compete for Ogunleye's or Dre Bly's services. I'd much rather take a chance on somebody like Ogunleye than on a DE drafted in the first round, like Udeze or James. If they had signed Bly, instead of the Lions, they would have easily won the division in 2003, and would not have ended up signing Smoot this past year, who may turn out to be a bust.

Well, with new ownership, perhaps more money will be spent on scouting, with corresponding results. If the Vikings are going to compete with the Bears in the next few years, since the Bears seem to finally be on the right track, they better hope like hell that Udeze comes back to a very effective player, which he showed signs of prior to his knee injury this year, and that James continues on the upward arc he began a few weeks ago. There is no subsitute for dominant defensive line play, which the Bears have in spades.

16
by usedbread (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 4:25pm

regardless of wonderlic scores, harris isnt dumb. i took a few classes with him at ULM.

17
by Joon (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 4:44pm

which harris are we talking about? both chris and tommie are prominently featured both in the article and in the bears' D. but none of the comments have distinguished which harris they are referring to.

18
by JG (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 4:55pm

The 13 wonderlick score and extra weight body type was referring to Tommie Harris, atleast I've heard those same comments. Really the only knock on Chris Harris coming out of college that I knew about was that he played at a small school with poor competition.

19
by NFC Central Freak (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 4:58pm

Tommie Harris is the guy I was referencing.

I am vehemently opposed to drafting individuals who lack the capacity to learn. The NFL is not a game for dummies whatever folks may think.

20
by Chris (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 5:11pm

Good article.

I watched most of the Bucs/Bears game and the Bears D-line just embarassed the Bucs O-line across the board.

I remember one play that really impressed me is the guard and tackle double teamed Tommie Harris on a run up the middle. Tommie Harris not only took two blockers, but on a run play, drove BOTH guys back 3 yards.

21
by Tecmo Bo (not verified) :: Thu, 12/01/2005 - 6:06pm

Re #12- I was thinking the same thing... This team reminds me a ton of the Shaun King Bucs ('99 I think- when they lost in St. Louis 10-3 in the NFC title game). Brad Johnson won a title with that team, and he could have won a title with this team.

22
by Paytonrules (not verified) :: Fri, 12/02/2005 - 12:34am

Speaking of Mike Green - Mr. irrelevant - does he even see the field anymore? Chris Harris not only stole his starting spot in week 3, it's like the guy was eaten.

23
by Bruce Dickinson (not verified) :: Fri, 12/02/2005 - 2:16am

note:
earlier this year the Chicago Sun-Times printed the wonderlic scores of every starter on defense (and maybe offense too). i don't remember any of them, but it was the type of information that local papers print for local readers. not even sure the point of printing the scores, but that information goes with a football conscious market like chicago.

24
by Tom W (not verified) :: Fri, 12/02/2005 - 10:33am

Since the Bears are playing the Packers this week, I thought the FO staff might be interested to know that the lead Packer story in today's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is about how, while GB's defense has done a good job of shutting down the opponents' no. 1 receiver, they've gotten killed by TEs.

25
by Bad Doctor (not verified) :: Fri, 12/02/2005 - 12:32pm

Consistently terrific work, MDS.

A request ... could we get an EPC (or some other article) about the Jacksonville defense, or a part thereof? This is a team that keeps popping up at the top of the DVOA ratings, they're probably playoff bound, and yet I don't think I know anything about them. Between their lack of star power and their weak schedule, I'm sure many other fans are in the same boat ... besides some of the Sunday night game with Cincy, a lot of us have probably seen next to none of their action, and the media is not exactly on their bandwagon either. Even looking back at the Audibles for the last few weeks, there are only 3 JAX comments, and two of them are just saying that Wilford should be starting. They would have the top DVOA defense if not for this stellar Bears' squad, but I don't know much about anybody besides the two tackles. (Donovan is out for the year, right?) They seem to warrant much more exposure than they're getting.

26
by NFC Central Freak (not verified) :: Fri, 12/02/2005 - 12:47pm

Tom:

I thought the article was undermined by not calculating the penalty total. Ahmad Carroll (and other non-Al Harris defensive backs on that team) have been repeatedly penalized for PI, illegal contact, holding, eye-gouging, fondling, and just about anything else you can imagine.

But with respect to the TE totals, Mark Roman isn't worthy as a starter in the NFL. And frankly, I doubt he belongs on a roster. He's slow, he won't tackle, and he makes mistakes in coverage.

To paraphrase Dean Wormer: slow, dumb, and cowardly is no way to go through life son...........

27
by Tom W (not verified) :: Fri, 12/02/2005 - 1:24pm

Re #26:
Yeah, I agree with you about the penalties. While Carroll has played marginally better of late (leading to hopes that he might someday be adequate), Harris has been their only consistent DB (and, I think, is the lone Packer that deserves Pro Bowl consideration). I thought the article was interesting because it's the 1st time I've seen this phenomenon discussed in the local press, though FO pointed it out last season.

28
by Tom W (not verified) :: Fri, 12/02/2005 - 2:41pm

Also agree that Roman is awful.

29
by EorrFU (not verified) :: Sat, 12/03/2005 - 12:06pm

I remember that Pacman Jones had an awful wonderlic score. I was so glad when the Titans took him so my Skins could take Charles Rogers.

They have many of them printed around the net.

Wonderlic of course isn't everything. LaDanian Tomlinson got a 13.

As far as I can tell the only perfect score(50) ever recorded was taken by... Ryan Fitzpatrick the harvard QB who looked great against the Texans last week.

30
by Catfish (not verified) :: Sun, 12/04/2005 - 1:41am

I think there was a punter who got a 50 a while back.

31
by Travis (not verified) :: Sun, 12/04/2005 - 2:34am

Pat McNally, punter for the Bengals in the 80s, also got a 50.

32
by tim (not verified) :: Sun, 12/04/2005 - 5:31am

fitzpatrick scored a 38 and finished the test in 9 minutes, the speed being the record at the combine

33
by Sid (not verified) :: Tue, 12/06/2005 - 12:16pm

RE: 16

That's Chris. Tommie is the one who was thought to be dumb. He went to OU.

34
by someone (not verified) :: Tue, 12/06/2005 - 10:18pm

Re. Brian Urlacher, Nov 2004.

"He was overhyped his first year because the Bears went 13-3 and it was easy to tell there was going to be a backlash. Now hes the love-to-hate player because the Bears are crap. But the he’s-overrated brigade are starting to run out of steam with Urlacher - He’s actually improved a lot at shedding blocks, is very good in pass coverage, and has always played smart. Of course the system is designed around him making plays - he’s an impact player. The same is true of Ray Lewis right now in the 3-4 in Baltimore - he doesnt have two fat guys in the middle anymore, but he has three D-lineman playing two gap and Edge Hartwell playing thug linebacker and taking on the fullback, allowing him to roam free. He is protected by his system the same way Urlacher was protected in 2001. If the Bears do well next year, watch Urlacher’s play magically improve in the eyes of these scouts."