Air and Space demands pass-rush response

The big-money deals the Bears and Lions made with Julius Peppers and Kyle Vanden Bosch, respectively, reflect the need for pass-rushers in what has become a passing-dominant division. Getty Images/AP Photo

It didn't take long for @EricStangel, Twitter's resident sports funnyman, to start poking at Chicago's free-agent spending spree. A sampling:

  • "Julius Peppers signs w/ Bears. Was looking for team w/ QB who throws lots of INTs just like in CAR. That way he plays more!"

  • "NFL Free Agency Update - The Bears are getting carried away. They just signed the groundskeeper to 6yr/$72 million deal"

  • "The Chicago Bears just signed Quinton Aaron who played Michael Oher in The Blind Side to 5 yr/$50mil deal"

Yes, it was downright hysterical to see the Bears dole out $121 million in free-agent contracts Friday, let alone the $42 million in guarantees they gave Peppers. And by "hysterical," I mean it has generated a new round of Bears hysteria in the NFC North. I visited with ESPN 1000 listeners Sunday morning, and already the question is being asked: Have the Bears done enough to win the division in 2010?

My colleague Gene Wojciechowski addressed that question earlier Monday. (His answer: Not yet.) For the purposes of this post, I'd like to look at why the Bears stepped out of their previous financial constraints to lure Peppers. It's the same reason Detroit coach Jim Schwartz was on Kyle Vanden Bosch's doorstep the moment the market opened, and it illustrates once again the seismic change the NFC North has witnessed over the past 12 months.

The influx of elite quarterback play transformed the Black and Blue into a pass-dominated division, a trend that helped direct Chicago and Detroit to the bottom of the division standings. Although every NFL team covets a strong pass rush, you could argue it will be a necessity to compete in the NFC North moving forward.

First, let's review where we stood after the 2009 season. NFC North quarterbacks threw more touchdown passes than the combined totals of any other division, while also totaling the third-most passing yards among divisions. Those figures marked significant elevation over 2008, as you see in the charts below.

There were plenty of reasons why the Bears and Lions finished third and fourth in the division, respectively, but among the largest was their pass defense -- especially in division games.

Minnesota's Brett Favre combined for 713 yards and five touchdowns over two games against Chicago, and neither he nor Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers threw an interception to the Bears' defense. Detroit, meanwhile, finished last among NFL teams in total pass defense, but its performance against the Vikings and Packers was even worse.

Favre and Rodgers completed 74.8 percent of their passes against the Lions, nearly seven percentage points higher than Detroit's season average. They also averaged 9.02 yards per attempt in those four games, almost a full yard higher than what the Lions gave up over the course of the season.

The full breakdowns are below:

In a nutshell, I think those numbers go a long way toward explaining why the Bears and Lions combined to lose seven of eight games to the Packers and Vikings last season. A year ago, you couldn't have traced passing dominance through this division so easily. But pass attempts were up 10 percent last season, a statistically significant number when you consider it was the combined total of four teams.

Pass rush is a tricky subject. The Bears ranked No. 13 among NFL teams last season with 41 sacks, but I don't think anyone would dispute they needed to improve the larger horizon of their play-to-play rush. Peppers might not dramatically improve the Bears' bottom-line sack total, but if his unique skills can more consistently create a more frenzied environment for division quarterbacks, then perhaps the Bears will have better luck pushing the Vikings and Packers.

"For our defense to be successful," coach Lovie Smith said, "you have to be able to get pressure up front with four-man rush first. ... Being able to generate pressure from the front four is huge. Julius will help all our players. He'll help Tommie Harris and the rest of our inside players and our other defensive ends and make it better for our coverage."

The Lions, on the other hand, have nowhere to go but up in every category. Their 26 sacks last season ranked 29th in the NFL, and their nine interceptions -- often a product of the pass rush -- ranked No. 30.

If I were a Lions fan, I would be excited by the potential improvement Vanden Bosch will bring. But I would be downright giddy when considering the looming transformation of the Lions' defensive line.

New nose tackle Corey Williams was a strong interior pass-rusher earlier in his career. And the Lions are in line to select one of the two elite defensive tackles in this draft, Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh or Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy. Both are active pass-rushers who should be able to penetrate the line of scrimmage and at least pressure opposing quarterbacks more than the Lions did last season.

Vanden Bosch told Detroit reporters that the Lions are trying to build a "dominant defensive line." In the old days of the NFC North, circa 2008, that meant collecting a group of run-stoppers to hold their ground in December mudfests.

Now, we're talking about 320-pound pass-rushers. To me, the opening weekend of free agency reflected a response to our new Air and Space division. It's here to stay -- and that's no joke.