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
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.