In 2012, the Chicago Bears finished 10-6 but failed to make the playoffs and nine-year Head Coach Lovie Smith was fired. General Manager Phil Emery brought in Mark Trestman who had success as both an NFL offensive coordinator and a CFL Head Coach.
The result of the change was probably the most productive offense in Bears history, but the defense faltered. Under Lovie Smith, the defense was annually one of the better defenses in the NFL. Trestman brought in Mel Tucker to coordinate the defense, and because of the strong veteran presence on the team, he did not change much from what the Bears did under Smith.
Tucker would be the first to admit that was a mistake. Lovie Smith had a veteran defensive coaching staff, but Tucker's staff was inexperienced in two key areas, the defensive line and linebackers. For whatever reason, the players did not buy into the new staff and did not perform to their talent level. The result was an 8-8 team that had one of the poorest defenses in the NFL. That’s not what the fans in Chicago have come to expect from their defense.
At the end of the 2013 season, Emery vowed to do whatever was necessary to turn around the defense. He started by waiving former Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, then not re-signing defensive tackle Henry Melton. Starting safety Major Wright, Sam linebacker James Anderson, and defensive end Corey Wooton were also not re-signed.
Trestman and Tucker made changes in the defensive staff, bringing in veteran assistants Paul Pasqualoni and Reggie Herring to coach the defensive line and linebackers respectively. Both bring not only experience but high energy to the table.
Emery began to come through on his vow to improve the defense during free agency. He signed defensive ends Lamar Houston and Willie Young right away. Both bring pass rush ability and needed youth to the defense. Houston also has the ability to play inside on passing downs.
During the owners' meetings, the Bears got their surprise signing. Most in the league felt former Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen would sign with Seattle or Dallas. That he signed with the Bears was a shocker!
Former Dallas Cowboy Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, who the Bears signed at mid-season last year, was also re-signed. Ratliff only played a few games last year as he was recovering from a serious leg injury. He is back in top form now.
Not only was the defensive line in need of an upgrade but so was the safety position. The Bears signed former New York Giant Ryan Mundy and former Packer M.D. Jennings. Both bring starting experience to the defense.
On offense, the Bears added receiver depth with Domenik Hixon, offensive line depth with Brian de la Puente, and tight end depth with Matthew Mulligan. While none of those three are looked at as starters, both Hixon and de la Puente have starting experience and add quality depth.
Emery looked to the draft to get the final pieces of the puzzle. With their top three corners all on the wrong side of 30, the Bears added Virginia Tech corner Kyle Fuller. He will probably be the nickel corner in 2014 and replace Charles Tillman as the starter in 2015. The next two picks were defensive tackles Ego Ferguson from LSU and Will Sutton form Arizona State. Ferguson is a top run stopper who can play either defensive tackle position, Sutton is a poor man’s Aaron Donald and is an ideal three-technique. He will provide an inside pass rush.
Later in the draft, the Bears got a quality backup to running back Matt Forte in Ka'deem Carey. Carey is an excellent runner and receiver who needs to improve his pass blocking skills. In David Fales, the Bears got a quality young quarterback who can become an excellent backup to Jay Cutler.
Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker will run his defense this year instead of Lovie Smith’s defense. While there are similarities, you can look for alignment changes with the defensive line and a much more aggressive philosophy.
With all the new players added to the defensive line, there will probably be a seven or eight man rotation, which will keep players fresh. Veteran Israel Idonije and Houston have position versatility in that they can play inside or outside. Add in the other players and the line has more depth than it has ever had.
I expect to see more blitzing form this scheme, especially from the Sam linebacker position. Former first round pick Shea McClellin has lost weight and been moved to the Sam position. Rookie free agent Christian Jones from Florida State is also a Sam and is known for his pass rush skills.
I expect to see the use of more coverages in the secondary. It won’t be 40 to 50% cover two like we have been used to seeing. More press and quarter coverage will be used as well as some three deep.
On paper, the Chicago Bears are a much improved team. To be able to overtake the Green Bay Packers, like every NFL club, they need to keep key people healthy.
With the help of Trestman, Jay Cutler played his best football in years. He still needs to improve and not come up with the costly turnovers in key situations. Being in the system for two years will help.
The Bears are looking for second year receiver Marquess Willson to take a big step in 2014. If the off season is any indication, that should happen. Wilson will give the Bears three tall and athletic wide outs, something that can and will give the defenses fits.
Looking from the outside, I think the Bears have what it takes to win the NFC North. The offense will improve because it’s their second year in Trestman’s system. The defense will improve because of new personnel and new veteran coaches.
Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe