Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
17 Jan 2007
by Michael David Smith
Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander was back to last season's MVP form against the Bears on Sunday, carrying 26 times for 108 yards and two touchdowns and nearly leading Seattle to a playoff upset in Chicago. But how much of Seattle's success on the ground goes to Alexander, and how much blame to the Bears' defense? After watching the Bears' defensive line on every play of that 27-24 Chicago win, I think this line has real problems stopping the run, and they're problems the Saints could exploit in Sunday's NFC Championship.
The Bears' decision to build their line around speed and pass rushing ability more than strength and run stopping ability has yielded the predictable result that opposing offensive linemen can blow the Bears off the ball. The Bears clearly miss tackle Tommie Harris, who was their best lineman before he was lost for the season with a hamstring injury, and of the five linemen who logged significant playing time Sunday, only one, Adewale Ogunleye, played well against both the run and the pass. Here are some thoughts on each of the five:
Ogunleye was the Bears' best lineman Sunday. Alexander twice ran in his direction on first-and-10, and twice Ogunleye tackled him, once for no gain and once for a gain of just a yard.
Oguleye's speed also allowed the Bears to use zone blitzes frequently against Seattle, and that seemed to frustrate Matt Hasselbeck. On third-and-9 on Seattle's first series, Chicago sent cornerback Ricky Manning on a blitz on the left and linebacker Lance Briggs on a blitz on the right. Both of Chicago's defensive ends, Ogunleye and Mark Anderson, dropped into coverage to replace Manning and Briggs. So although the Bears had two blitzers, they still had only four pass rushers. Those four were enough to confuse the Seahawks' offensive line, and the play worked just as it was drawn up: Manning forced Hasselbeck into a bad throw. (Bears cornerback Charles Tillman dropped what should have been an interception, though.)
Ogunleye also had a crucial sack on a third-and-1 with the Bears down 24-21 in the fourth quarter, forcing a punt and giving the Bears the ball back for what would become their game-tying field goal drive. Overall it was a very good game for Ogunleye.
Johnson was arrested on gun charges last month and his best friend was shot and killed while the two of them were at a Chicago nightclub two days later. Johnson has long had off-field problems, and the Bears probably would have cut him if they hadn't already been without Harris.
On Sunday Johnson's sack late in the fourth quarter might have saved the Bears' season, as it ended a drive on which the Seahawks looked like they were heading for a game-winning field goal. That wasn't the only time Johnson made his presence felt rushing the passer; on a third-and-7 he beat left guard Rob Sims and forced Hasselbeck to hurry his throw, which Brian Urlacher knocked away to force a punt. Johnson is very good at getting inside pressure.
But on running plays Johnson was virtually nonexistent. Aside from that sack, he had only one tackle all day, and that was on the meaningless draw that Seattle ran on the last play of the first half. Some defensive tackles can keep blockers off the linebackers and be effective against the run even when they're not making the tackles themselves, but Johnson doesn't do much of that. You can bet that the Saints are planning a healthy dose of runs directly at Johnson. Chicago sometimes substitutes Johnson with Alfonso Boone, who at 6-foot-4 and 318 pounds is the Bears' biggest defensive player. I didn't get enough looks at Boone to come to any strong conclusions Sunday, but it couldn't hurt to have him on the field more in short-yardage situations.
I've been a Scott fan for a long time, but he got pushed around too often against Seattle. On a four-yard gain by Alexander on second-and-2, guard Chris Gray pushed Scott back easily and Alexander ran directly behind him to pick up the first down.
When Alexander picked up two yards on second-and-1 on Seattle's second drive, Sims and center Chris Spencer buried Scott. That (as well as left tackle Walter Jones' pushing defensive end Alex Brown back) allowed Alexander to get the first down. It's those short-yardage plays when it's hard to feel confident in the Bears' undersized front.
Scott doesn't generate much of a pass rush at all (as the nose tackle in coach Lovie Smith's Tampa 2 scheme, he's not expected to) and has only two sacks in his career. When you're a defensive lineman who doesn't rush the passer and doesn't make tackles on running plays, you're in trouble.
Brown often lined up against Seattle's tight ends. Sometimes he took advantage of that seeming mismatch, as on Seattle's first play, when Alexander tried to bounce it to the outside but couldn't find anywhere to go because Brown pushed Jerramy Stevens directly back to where Alexander wanted to run. With nowhere to go, Alexander hesitated and was brought down by safety Chris Harris for a gain of just a yard.
But too often, Brown lost those individual battles. On a second-and-2, Seattle tight end Will Heller was matched one-on-one with Brown and pushed him two yards straight back at the snap. Brown did get off Heller's block and tackle Alexander, but not until Alexander had gained five yards. Heller is a good blocker and bigger than Brown, but no tight end should have that easy a time against a defensive end.
Anderson, a rookie out of Alabama, had 12 sacks this season and is the Bears' best pass rusher. Most of the time when a rookie records a lot of sacks it's because he does nothing but rush to the outside on every play, but Anderson's pass rushing is a little more sophisticated than that. On one third-and-10 Sunday, Anderson lined up at right defensive end and faked like he was going to rush to the outside, but then stunted to the inside and hit Hasselbeck just as he released his pass.
But on a second-and-10, Anderson showed why he's still a work in progress. Lined up against Jones, Anderson got pushed back several yards as Alexander gained six. The Bears rarely use Anderson on running downs, but he's so effective against the pass that I'd like to see him get more playing time, which would mean less for Brown.
In that brief overview of Chicago's linemen, I didn't mention the drive that should be the most alarming to Bears fans. After a Rex Grossman fumble, Seattle took over at the Chicago 26-yard line, and it was all Alexander: On first-and-10, Seattle right tackle Sean Locklear drove Johnson down the line and opened up a big hole for Alexander for a 13-yard gain. After a Hasselbeck incompletion, Alexander picked up seven yards on second-and-10 by running through a huge hole right in the middle of the field, with Spencer and left guard Rob Sims doubling Johnson and pushing him straight back. On third-and-3, Alexander's spin move allowed him to avoid the grasp of both Johnson and Scott, although safety Danieal Manning did a nice job filling the hole to stop Alexander just short of the first down. Then, on fourth and inches, Seattle went with six offensive linemen and none of the Bears' defensive linemen could get off their blocks. Alexander had only one man to beat -- Brian Urlacher -- and he took a stutter step to the outside, faking Urlacher out, before cutting inside to the end zone.
Much of the time when Chicago did stop Alexander, the secondary did more than the defensive line. Alexander lost two yards on the first play of Seattle's third possession, but Seattle's offensive line did a fine job getting the better of Chicago's defensive line on the play. The problem for Seattle was that fullback Mack Strong completely missed his block on safety Todd Johnson, and Johnson tackled Alexander for a loss of two. Later, Maurice Morris was stopped for two yards on second-and-10, and that time it was cornerback Ricky Manning who brought him down from the backside.
Will run support from the secondary be enough to overcome the defensive line's liabilities in the NFC Championship Game? I have my doubts. Although the Bears' speed is well suited to stopping Saints running back Reggie Bush, New Orleans' other back, Deuce McAllister, is a straight-ahead runner who follows holes right up the middle, and the Saints' offensive line should open a lot of those. As strong as the Bears' defense has been this season, the season will come to an end if Chicago doesn't get a better performance out of its defensive line on Sunday.
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.
105 comments, Last at 23 Jan 2007, 5:26pm by Danalyst