Giving up 145 yards per game on the ground is sure to draw a lot of negative attention, and the Chicago Bears have gotten their fair share of that in recent weeks. Their play against stalwart (and yes, this word is used sarcastically) running backs like Brandon Jacobs and Benny Cunningham in recent weeks has been a source of consternation for both analysts of the team and fans alike. And those worries aren’t going to take a week off against Adrian Peterson on Sunday.
Many players have been targeted for their roles in the systemic failure of the Bears’ run defense, but arguably the biggest offender this season has been defensive end Shea McClellin. Drafted in the first round by the Bears in 2012, McClellin was expected to be a defensive playmaker and the star of Phil Emery’s first draft class, but instead he has turned into a whipping boy for the terrible defensive play of the team’s defensive line this season.
Whether that blame is fairly placed is a matter for a different debate, but the point is that McClellin’s struggles against the run in recent weeks have only been growing worse.
Last week’s loss to the Rams provided several clear examples of the deficiencies in McClellin’s approach, and if he can’t begin to reverse some of these flaws, then the Bears are going to be in for a long day against the running back known as “All Day” Peterson.
In the first quarter, McClellin had two terrible reads that led to big St. Louis gains. On Tavon Austin’s 65 yard touchdown run, McClellin cut inside on the fake to the strong side of the formation, and despite all of the athleticism that had scouts drooling when he came out of Boise State, he wasn’t able to reverse field fast enough to try to track Austin down when he cut back to the weak side. It was almost comical watching McClellin run all the way across the formation and continue to do so even after Austin had cut back.
Later in the same quarter, McClellin was given a free lane through the B-gap in the offensive line, but he ended up allowing the edge to be completely open, and Cunningham ran for a 35 yard gain and a key first down.
In the second quarter, McClellin undercut another rush attempt by Cunningham, this time getting released by Joe Barksdale at the line. His forward momentum after not even being touched at the line was enough to get him to blow right past Cunningham, who had gone out to the strong side on a pitch, and the result was an 11 yard gain.
Finally, McClellin also featured prominently on Cunningham’s fourth quarter touchdown run, when he was stood up at the line of scrimmage by Mike McNeill, and simply stopped pressing forward on the play.
It is perhaps that last facet of McClellin’s game that is most lacking. If he is blocked at the line of scrimmage, he essentially becomes a non-factor in a play, and that occurred time and again against the Rams. On a second quarter pass rush, McClellin was blocked by a fullback, and as soon as contact was made, McClellin tried helplessly to try to get forward push toward Kellen Clemens, and he just could not figure out a way to beat his man.
Other than the occasional spin move that he has shown this season (he picked up a sack against the Green Bay Packers using that move), McClellin doesn’t have a secondary move once initial contact is made. That ends up costing him not only on the pass rush where his athleticism should be an asset, but it also prevents him from getting enough leverage to be able to stop the run when it comes to his side of the line, and it’s costing the Bears dearly.
At this point in the season, it’s unlikely that McClellin will be able to do much to change his stripes when it comes to run coverage, but he has got to give at the very least a smarter effort against a Minnesota rushing attack that has made many teams look foolish this season.