Bearing down defensively
The Green Bay Packers aren’t the only NFC North team seeking defensive improvement. Nor is Mike McCarthy the division’s only head coach with an offensive background looking to get more involved with his defense.
A little more than a week after McCarthy stood in the Lambeau Field Legends Club area and promised that his team’s defense “is going to change some” and that he would “set the vision for the defense; (defensive coordinator) Dom Capers and the defensive staff will carry it out,” Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman more or less said the same thing Thursday at the annual NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
“Obviously the most important part of this offseason is rebuilding our defense to a stature that’s expected of us at Halas Hall, in our community and our fan base,” Trestman said. “It’s wide open this year and everything’s on the table this year in terms of where we’re going defensively.”
Like McCarthy, Trestman’s area of expertise is offense. He was hired a year ago to help fix quarterback Jay Cutler and renovate an offense that had gone stale under head coach Lovie Smith, a defense-oriented coach, and a cast of offensive coordinators.
Now, just as the Packers are looking to tweak their scheme and add playmakers -- “We need more impact players, we need more players making plays on defense,” McCarthy said in his season-ending press conference after an NFC Wild Card loss to San Francisco – Trestman was discussing the same reality. While his defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker, will retain his autonomy over the defense, Trestman did bring in three new assistants — defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni, linebackers coach Reggie Herring and assistant line coach Clint Hurtt — because the Bears wanted “experienced coaches who have had numerous stays and stops and positive experiences running 4-3, 3-4, multiple-front defenses,” said general manager Phil Emery.
“We felt we had to do some things [differently], but the starting point was we felt Mel could lead and coach the defense,” Trestman said of Tucker, who essentially ran Smith’s scheme last season. “[The defensive coaches] are meeting to learn more about their styles and the pre-existing defense and where we can go with our existing players, knowing that there’s going to be a lot of change.”
Among those changes: While the Bears will remain a 4-3, one-gap scheme on defense, Emery said the Bears will use “a wide variety of alignments” to throw off opposing offenses; defensive end Shea McClellin – the guy whose sack of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers shelved Rodgers for eight games with a fractured clavicle – is moving to linebacker; and perennial Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, coming off a 7.5-sack season and carrying a salary-cap number north of $18 million for 2014, could be released; and the Bears could be without two defensive stalwarts, defensive tackle Henry Melton and cornerback Charles Tillman, who are set to be unrestricted free agents.
As a result, Trestman suggested that the Bears won’t decide on what exact changes they’ll make on defense until after free agency and the draft, so they know who the players are that they’ll be tailoring their defense to.
“To lock ourselves in and be so narrow-minded that, ‘This is what we're going to be,’ when we don't have the players to get it done would be – to me – not very [smart],”
Trestman said. Asked if he wanted more say in the defense, Trestman replied, “I'm not sure what that means. I hold myself completely accountable for what happened to our football team defensively. It starts with me.”
The Bears’ defense finished tied for 30th in the NFL in scoring defense (29.9 points per game), 30th in yards allowed (394.6), dead last (32 nd) in rushing yards (161.4), 15 th in passing yards (233.1), tied for last in sacks (31) and tied for ninth in takeaways (27).
The Packers’ defense, by comparison, finished tied for 24th in scoring defense (26.8 points per game) in 2013, 25th in yards allowed (372.3), 25th in rushing yards allowed (125.0), 24th in passing yards allowed (247.3), tied for eighth in sacks (44) and tied for 20th in takeaways (22).
And like the Packers, the Bears feel they need to not only alter the scheme but also alter the personnel.
“For the most part, it's going to be a defensive-oriented draft in terms of where we're going,” said Trestman, pointing out that the Bears overhauled the offense last year with 10 new players and a scheme change. “That doesn't mean we won't draft an offensive player. We're going to draft the players we think are best at the time, where our football team is at the time of the draft.
“We know we can do it. We left the Halas Hall believing that this would be something we're going to go through defensively, just like we did offensively last year. And it's exciting.”