Bears' Pass Rush Revival
Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, hired in 1978, once said he'd send as many guys to the quarterback as needed to generate a pass rush, because he "wasn't going to let [the opposing signalcaller] sit back there and pick his defense apart." Ryan's defenders averaged almost four sacks per game over a seven-year span, incredible by today's standards.
In 2003, Dick Jauron disciple Greg Blache told the media that "sacks don't matter" in the scheme of his defense, and his players backed up his words, finishing with a franchise-low 18.
Contrary to Blache's feelings, new coach Lovie Smith has gone on the record stating that his defense will live or die by the presence or absence of a pass rush from his front four linemen.
It may be impossible to see a greater difference in philosophy between two coaching staffs in two years. Since Dave Wannstedt's defensive line purge of 1994-1995, the Bears have been unable to draft or buy a dominant defensive lineman. If Bears history continues, Smith will have a rough time until that dominant lineman is identified.
Ryan's 46 defense was designed around one fundamental goal-pressure the quarterback so much that he would be forced to get rid of the ball immediately or be sacked, or oftentimes throw interceptions. As Bears' General Manager Jim Finks brought Ryan players such as Dan Hampton, Al Harris, Otis Wilson, Steve McMichael, Mike Singletary, Richard Dent and Wilber Marshall, the team's sack totals climbed, peaking at an NFL-record 72 in 1984.
Even after Ryan's departure in 1986, new coordinator Vince Tobin's defenses kept up the pressure that year and in '87, when the unit tallied 62 and 70, respectively.
It is precisely at that time that the Bears defense started the long dropoff in pressuring the quarterback that exists to this day. Sure, from 1988 to 1992 the team still possessed a formidable defensive line with Dent, McMichael, William Perry and Trace Armstrong most often starting, but after drafting "Fridge" in 1985, they failed to build new talent.
In 1987, coach Mike Ditka favored drafting Cincinnati's Alex Gordon, a pass rushing linebacker, but was overruled by personnel man Bill Tobin and team president Michael McCaskey, who selected quarterback Jim Harbaugh in the first round. Not that the selection of Gordon would have mattered; he only played seven years in the NFL, recording 12 sacks total.
Prior to the 1991 season, the Bears traded cornerback Vestee Jackson to Miami for defensive end Eric Kumerow to provide depth and youth. Kumerow injured his knee in the preseason that year and never played another snap.
Other players drafted by the Bears in the late Ditka years to provide a youthful pass rush were Ralph Jarvis, Tim Ryan, Fred Washington, John Roper and Ron Cox. Jarvis never stuck with the team, Ryan was a situational player and Washington died in a car accident his rookie year. Roper, a linebacker, provided some pressure but was said to be problematic in the locker room. Fellow linebacker Cox was injured the most of his first four seasons, then finally started in 1997.
In 1991 and 1992, realizing they sorely needed youth on the line, Ditka and Tobin drafted Chris Zorich and Alonzo Spellman in the second and first rounds of those years. Spellman was chosen over a safer pick, Robert Porcher, who was selected just several spots after the Bears. In Spellman's first pro game, ironically against Porcher and his Lions, he bullrushed from the tackle position and took quarterback Rodney Peete down hard near the goal line. The team felt confident it had its next Richard Dent and Steve McMichael in Zorich and Spellman.
If the late Ditka years became frustrating for the pass rush, the Wannstedt years began the nightmare from which the team has not recovered. In Wannstedt's first season, 1993, his defense finished with 46 sacks, best since 1987. Richard Dent and Trace Armstrong led the way, with Zorich surprisingly stepping in with seven. The team's pass rush was directly responsible for their third-ranked pass defense (fourth overall), and if the team had any offense that year they may have shocked the NFL.
Following the 1993 season, Wannstedt exercised his personnel powers, releasing McMichael and failing to re-sign Dent. In the 1994 draft, he selected linebacker John Thierry from tiny Alcorn State to play defensive end. Also chosen was DT Jim Flanigan in the third round.
The following year, Wannstedt traded his most reliable defensive end, Trace Armstrong, to the Dolphins for draft picks that turned into P Todd Sauerbrun and G Evan Pilgrim.
While Wannstedt showed the veterans the door, his youth movement failed to fill those shoes. Spellman talked big but rarely delivered. Thierry looked overmatched at end. Tackles Flanigan and Zorich recorded some sacks but were small by NFL standards.
In 1996, the Bears gave free agent middle linebacker Bryan Cox the most money they'd ever given to anyone, and Cox lined up at right end on third downs in 1996, but by 1998 he and troublemaker Spellman were released. (Robert Porcher, taken after Spellman, still is enjoying a 13-season NFL career with the Lions).
Wannestedt was fired following the 1998 season, during which the team posted just 28 sacks. That, along with the 28 also posted during his '94 season, were the lowest totals for the team since the stat began being counted in 1979.
Jauron and Blache were hired in 1999, and the sack total rose to 37 in one season. Starting much of the year at right end was second-round pick Russell Davis, but as a sophomore Davis would be unceremoneously cut. During the 5-11 2000 season, the total dropped one.
Then came the miracle season of 2001. The team posted 48 sacks, best again since 1987, and almost as importantly the defenders led the NFL in quarterback pressures. While the brief resurgence of the pass rush was a big part of the team's 13-3 record that season, 29 of the 48 sacks (60.4%) were by non-linemen. The following season, 22 of 35 sacks (62.8%) were recorded by linebackers or defensive backs.
Finally, in 2003, the team set a franchise record for futility by posting just 18 sacks. Defensive end Alex Brown led the team with just 5.5 takedowns; to contrast, New York Giant end Michael Strahan led the NFL with 18.5, more than Chicago's entire team. For the record, the Bears selected defensive tackle Carl Simpson five picks before Strahan was taken in 1993.
Presently, new head coach Smith and defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who incidentally recorded 7.5 sacks for the Bears in his nine-year career, are installing their defense in Bourbonnais, IL. The defense will feature Smith's cover-2 coupled with Rivera's 46 and blitz schemes learned from Jim Johnson in Philadelphia. This defense, as Smith has said, relies on a consistent pass rush from the four linemen, something Chicago has not seen since Dent, Armstrong and McMichael manned the trenches.
Certainly Smith knew what he was getting himself into in Chicago, and is confident he will turn around the pass rush to the legacy of 1984, not 1994.
Further Reading
Cover Two Defense Here is a good explanation of the cover two defense, Lovie Smith's specialty. © 2000-2016 Roy Taylor