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Bears Tue Sep 23 2014

It's All about Pressure for the Bears Defense

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for GB bears icon.pngWhen Phil Emery was tasked with upgrading the bad half of his team during the offseason, the defensive line was obviously the place to start. With injuries crippling the Bears in 2013, he needed to throw money and draft picks at a problem area directly responsible for the worst run defense in franchise history.

Lamarr Houston and Willie Young were the top targets for the Bears, and the reasons are were obvious. Both players ranked in the top 15 among of 4-3 defensive ends last season according to Pro Football Focus (a website the Bears subscribe to for unbiased individual grades), and while Houston is the better run defender, and Young is the better pass rusher, neither are slouches when it comes to the other duties. The only critique from Bears fans were about their sack numbers. Despite being ranked so highly, the pair combined for ten total sacks in 2013 -- two less than the outgoing end combo of Julius Peppers and Shea McClellin.

Monday night's victory over the Jets is a perfect example of why sack numbers don't tell the whole story. The Bears were credited with just two sacks on the night: one by rookie Ego Ferguson with help from fellow greenhorn Will Sutton, and the other from Young, who ran Jets quarterback Geno Smith out of bounds on a scramble for a one-yard loss. Just one take-down of the quarterback in the backfield all night, but the pressures made all the difference.

According to PFF, Smith was pressured on 17 of his 47 dropbacks last night (36.2 percent), which is slightly above last year's league average. On those 17 plays, most of which coming from a four man rush, he was 3-of-14 for 17 yards.

Young was third amongst 4-3 DEs in hurries last season, while Houston was ninth. When it comes to total pressures from 2013, six of the top 15 finishers became free agents. Three of them ended up Bears (Young, Houston, and Jared Allen), and another, Michael Bennett, was a target that re-signed with his own team almost immediately.

In the draft, Ferguson and Sutton were brought in for their stout play against the run and premier pass rushing ability, respectively. Ferguson ended up with the sack, and Sutton is tied for the league lead in run stop percentage. Maybe not the way the Bears drew it up, but production along the defensive front nonetheless.

Allen had a brutal first half against D'Brickashaw Ferguson, one of the premier left tackles in the league, but exploded in the second half to finally have the pass rushing impact the Bears have been looking for out of their late free agency signing. Let's not forget Stephen Paea getting to the quarterback on a few occasions too.

The success up front is so important because it bleeds into the two units in the back. Lance Briggs and Jon Bostic were able to fly to the football, with Bostic having arguably his best game as a Bear, notching 13 tackles on the night. He had a rough final series that saw him drop an interception, allow a questionable chain-moving completion on fourth-down, and get flagged for a non-hold, but he was lights out before that.

The pressure came in extremely handy for the banged up defensive backfield, a unit without Charles Tillman for the year, and one that lost starters Ryan Mundy and Chris Conte to shoulder injuries, and backup Danny McCray for a few snaps last night as well. At key points in the game, rookies Brock Vereen and Ahmad Dixon were the final line of defense, including the game-ending incompletion in the back of the endzone. Without pressure up front, those guys would've been eaten alive.

Though Tillman isn't out on the field, the Bears haven't had a dropoff at outside corner. Isaiah Frey had a rough game in the slot, but rookie Kyle Fuller had another monster performance against both the run and the pass. Seven tackles, an interception, and two forced fumbles after last week's masterful performance are putting him on the inside track for defensive rookie of the year (he's the highest rate CB overall according to PFF, and is second-highest against the pass to former Bear Corey Graham). Two of his three interceptions have come via bad throws forced by pressure up front.

There was hope after all the upgrades this offseason that the Bears might be able to field a league-average defense. Through three games, they're 11th in the NFL with 20.7 points allowed per game. Hurrying the quarterback and stoutness against the run are keys to a successful NFL defense, and the Bears finally have that again. Though three games might seem like a small sample size, it's nearly 20 percent of the regular season.

So far so good on Emery's pressure-focused rebuild.

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