Commentary

Bears' defense in good hands

Fixes sought with D-linemen who engage foes with hands, slip past, race to ball

Updated: July 31, 2014, 3:19 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

Jared AllenAP Photo/Nam Y. HuhMuch of this season's fate for the Bears is in the hands of their defenders, including Jared Allen, right, who joins a slew of new D-linemen.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- After Wednesday's practice, most eyes at Chicago Bears camp were on one practice field, as the always magnetic Michael Irvin taped a TV segment with the squad's receiving stars of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett.

As Phil Emery and Marc Trestman would say, there was a lot of catching radius in that group.

On another practice field, away from the noise, rookie interior defensive linemen Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson were quietly working on their hand-to-hand combat skills with consultant Joe Kim.

The art of the empty hand could pay dividends for a rebuilt defensive line whose new motto could resemble a weekend golfer's: Grip it and rip it.

"There's a really big emphasis on using our hands and flipping our hips," Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. "[Kim] has been a good addition to our staff in terms of we all believe in using our hands on defense."

Suttin and Ferguson had to match moves with Kim in karate-style drills. If Quentin Tarantino were at practice, he would have had a great idea about a 1970s kung fu football team.

"It's fun. It's for us," Sutton said with a smile, after finishing drills that lasted about 20 minutes. "It's going to help us get better."

Raise your hands if you're ready to see a real Bears defense this season.

For all the talk about how great the Bears' offense is going to be -- really great or da best ever -- this is a playoff team only if the defense can do a 180 from last season.

[+] EnlargeStephen Paea
Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsHoldover defensive linemen Stephen Paea, above, and Jay Ratliff will look to forget the troubling Bears defense of last season.
Emery, the hands-on general manager, looks to have done a solid job building a unit this offseason -- at least up front.

Along with the two rookies drafted in the second and third rounds, the Bears inked Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Willie Young to join holdovers Stephen Paea and Jeremiah Ratliff.

Paul Pasqualoni was hired to coach the line unit of a defense that was, for much of the season, the worst in the league statistically, stylistically and holistically.

Last season, racked with injuries and beset by an identity crisis, the Bears' defense lost its way. It gave up the third-most yards and had the worst run defense in the league, yielding 161.4 yards per game -- a whopping 60 more than the previous season.

Remember when the St. Louis Rams ran over Chicago for 258 yards on 8.9 yards a carry last season en route to a 42-21 victory?

Don't worry, most of this defensive linemen don't recall, because they weren't around back then. Aside from a few film sessions, no one is talking about the past.

"This is a new group," Tucker said. "We're focused on the future."

The future and present is Houston, a 27-year-old run-stopping beast who was signed from the Oakland Raiders. He will play outside in some packages and flip inside in the Bears' nickel.

"He's embracing the technique we're asking him to use in the run game, and he has pass-rush ability," Tucker said. "He's shown ability to rush inside, as well as outside."

Houston and Allen were signed to give this group an immediate impact outside as the new inside players develop. For sure, the upgraded defensive line is the most promising unit on that side of the ball.

So let's not go christening these guys the new 1985 Bears, or even the 2012 Bears. This group isn't rich at linebacker, and the safeties are a genuine concern.

So the defensive line will have to hold its own, and then some; and that includes the two rookies. As Sutton told me, he and Ferguson welcome the pressure that comes with being high draft picks.

"It starts up front," Sutton said. "That's why they trust us and brought Ego and I to play here right away," he said.

After keeping the Lovie Smith defense the same last season, partly to appease the veterans, Tucker is trying to remove the "embattled" title from his job with a fresh start.

As ESPN.com's Michael Wright wrote last week, the Bears are dumping their old pass-rush style which instructed linemen to shoot the gaps to stop the run as they chased the quarterback.

Now, the linemen -- along with the rest of the defense -- will be focused on using their hands to engage offensive linemen, rip past them and fly to the ball.

It's a subtle stylistic difference to fans, but it could pay off immediately with players strong enough and fast enough to disrupt offenses in the trenches.

Bears right tackle Jordan Mills has been mixing it up with Houston and Young, among others, and he said the defenders' newfound focus on hands technique is creating "havoc."

"The way our defense gets after it -- they get their hands on you, they're so quick and nimble and strong -- it's over," Mills said.

"Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Stephen Paea and Jay Ratliff, you can't double team one and leave one man to beat [you]," Mills said. "Going against our D-line, you better have a strategy -- and a good one."

Strategy is another new aspect to this defense. Tucker said the main focus will be keeping their plans flexible for the defensive line.

"We want to get off the ball, but we're not going to play every blocking scheme the same," Tucker said. "Whatever blocking scheme we get, we're going to play that block. That may require us to put our hands on that guy."

Last season we all credited Tucker for eschewing pride by keeping the defensive principles the same. But when injuries decimated the front seven and the defense looked hopeless, many called for Tucker's job after one year.

Tucker will need cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings to stay healthy and for rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller to contribute. He'll need a full season out of D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs and for the fairly anonymous group of safeties to take advantage of a renewed pass rush.

Right now, it's time for teaching and refining. Tucker wants every defender to focus on gaining an advantage over their offensive foe. That shouldn't be a problem for Tillman, Jennings and the rest of the vets trained to punch out footballs.

"Every coach on our staff is a big believer in using our hands at every position to control blockers, get off blocks, shed blocks and be able to get to the football," Tucker said.

It all sounds good now. We're a month away from seeing if the hands-on defense really makes a difference.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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