How current Bears players may fit in Eberflus' defense originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
With the news that former Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is set to become the next Bears head coach, there are some obvious follow up questions. First, how much will the Bears defense change, and how will their current personnel fit in the scheme?
To start, the Bears will almost certainly switch from a 3-4 defense, which Vic Fangio installed when he came to Chicago in 2015, back to a 4-3 defense similar to what Lovie Smith ran during his tenure. You will hear familiar terms, like Tampa-2 and “Mike linebacker,” but there will be more than that, too. For one, Eberflus has already shown plenty of flexibility over his time with leading the Colts defense, mixing in different concepts, like Single High coverages, and Cover-3 just to name a couple. Further, NFL defenses spend so much time in nickel packages these days that the Bears will be playing outside their base defense a lot.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about what Eberflus will bring to Chicago, but there are a few educated guesses we can make. Let’s start up front, with the defensive line. As mentioned earlier, Eberflus runs a base 4-3 defense, meaning there are four defensive linemen and three linebackers. Last season, the Colts aligned themselves with two defensive ends, a defensive tackle and a nose tackle. These four guys are key, because they’re relied upon to generate pressure by themselves, while also contributing in run defense. Over Eberflus’ tenure, the Colts never ranked higher than 27th in the league in terms of blitz rate.
Fortunately for the Bears, they have two of the best pass rushers in the league with Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn. Additionally, both Quinn and Mack have experience, and success, playing defensive end, so the transition back to getting a hand in the dirt shouldn’t be too hard for either player. The one thing the Bears may want to address over the offseason is adding a dynamite defensive tackle to take on the role DeForest Buckner played for the Colts.
"Because of (Buckner's) penetration in that B-gap, that sets up a lot of things," Eberflus said via Colts.com back in 2020. "It brings the center with him in pass protection, it sets off a lot of things in the defensive running game, where you penetrate in that B-gap, and it really puts the offense on their heels.”
If the Bears decide to retain Akiem Hicks, it’s possible he could fill that role. But for now, that position is a question mark that Eberflus and Ryan Poles will have to address. Another question they’ll have to answer is if Eddie Goldman still fits in Chicago.
In a 3-4 defense, having a strong nose tackle to soak up double teams is pivotal. In the 4-3, there’s more flexibility to roll with a nose, or another three-technique tackle. For instance, Eberflus ran with Grover Stewart, a more typical nose tackle, on 59% of the team’s snaps last season. But on passing downs, the team would rotate in the slightly smaller Taylor Stallworth next to Buckner to generate more pressure on the quarterback. As things stand now, Goldman is set to cost the Bears nearly $12 million against the salary cap, per Spotrac. That’s the fifth-highest cap hit on the team, behind Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Eddie Jackson and Cody Whitehair. By designating Goldman as a post-June 1 cut, the Bears will be able to save nearly $9 million, according to Spotrac. As the Bears retool their team to fit the vision of Poles and Eberflus, you have to wonder whether they believe that money can be better spent elsewhere.
Moving to the second level, a 4-3 defense features a Sam (strong-side) linebacker, Mike (middle) linebacker and Will (weak-side) linebacker. In Eberflus’ defense, the Will is the key position, which is the role Darius Leonard played. The Mike is also important, with the Sam being the least important. Last season, Leonard and Bobby Okereke (the Mike) each played over 90% of the team’s defensive snaps, while starting Sam linebacker Zaire Franklin was only on the field 18% of the time. To reorient you to Smith’s defense, Urlacher was the Mike and Briggs played Will.
Eberflus is likely very happy to inherit Roquan Smith, as Smith’s incredible talent would likely allow him to play either Mike or Will. Given the importance of the Will position in Eberflus’ defense, however, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Smith slot in there. Who fills in the gaps beside Smith is anyone’s guess as Alec Ogletree is no longer under contract, and Danny Trevathan was limited significantly by injuries last season.
Moving to the secondary, things get a little cloudier with Eberflus’ defense, as he began mixing in more man-to-man coverage in addition to Cover-2 zones as his defense evolved in Indy. For our purposes, let’s focus on the Cover-2 scheme. Safeties have to key in on whether the play is a run or pass first, and fill gaps if it is a run. Corners are also expected to contribute in run defense coming off the edge, something that Peanut Tillman excelled at in this defense. In the pass game, corners are taught to jam receivers at the line, and/or force them to the inside of the defense. This directs wideouts into the teeth of the linebackers, while taking stress off of the safeties on the backend. The safeties, as usual, are the last line of defense. They must range the width of the field and keep plays in front of them.
Jaylon Johnson has shown the ability to play tight press coverage on marquee wide receivers when called upon. He’s demonstrated the ability to play the run around the edge too, so he can make the transition. The same can be said for Eddie Jackson, who noticeably improved his run defense and tackling as the 2021 season progressed. Thomas Graham has said he’s worked on his press technique with Johnson, and Duke Shelley has shown promise defending the run, too. But expect the Bears to be on the lookout for a cornerback, or two, to shore up the outside and slot. With Tashaun Gipson set to become a free agent, there could be a new safety beside Jackson, too.
As we get to know Eberflus, and he shares his vision for the Bears, things will become more clear on defense. For now, expect to see familiar faces in different roles, along with some new names, too.