With the return of Pernell McPhee, the Chicago Bears edge rushers could pose a serious threat for opposing offenses, due in large part to the differing skill sets within the outside linebacker room.
The Chicago Bears in 2016 defense ranked 24th in the NFL in points allowed (24.9 per game).
While the defense ranked 6th in passing yards allowed, that was due in large part to the struggles of the run defense, which finished 27th last season. Opposing teams didn’t have to pass to beat the Bears last year but when they did, they had plenty of success.
Chicago averaged 11.2 yards per reception in 2016 (16th), gave up 21 TDs through the air and tied for the second fewest interceptions (8).
Injuries along the front seven and poor play from the secondary as a whole contributed greatly to the inconsistencies of Chicago’s pass defense last season. GM Ryan Pace addressed the secondary by signing three starters in free agency — CB Marcus Cooper, CB Prince Amukamara and S Quentin Demps — but did almost nothing to bulk up the pass rush.
Despite that, the Bears believe they are in good shape in the pass-rush department. Along the interior, Akiem Hicks is coming off a career high 7.0 sacks, newcomer Jaye Howard has a 5.0-sack season under his belt and Jonathan Bullard is expected to take a solid step forward this year.
Yet it’s the outside linebacker group that has the folks at Halas Hall so excited, especially now that Pernell McPhee is back at 100 percent.
“It’ll be one of the major differences,” said Willie Young after today’s OTA practice.
McPhee has dealt with shoulder and knee injuries since signing his big free-agent contract in 2015. As a result, he has just 10.0 sacks the past two years combined and played in just six contests last season.
Bears fans saw the impact of a healthy McPhee early in the 2015 campaign, when he had 5.0 sacks through his first eight games. If he can return to form and use his raw power and brute strength to work over opposing offensive tackles, that alone will take Chicago’s pass rush to another level.
“[Our mindset is] to dominate and destroy every opponent that we face,” McPhee said. “Just showing the world why they actually got these guys in the room. Just dominate in the NFL. That’s my focus. That’s what I want us to do and that’s what I think we’re going to do.”
The return of McPhee is just one of the many reasons the team is high on its OLB group. Leonard Floyd had 7.0 sacks in just 12 games as a rookie and added roughly 15 pounds during the off-season.
When asked what the next step is for Floyd, Young said: “Bring the pain, baby. Bring the pain. And I have no doubt in my mind he’s going to bring it.
“[I like] what he brings to the table: speed. He’s not afraid to put his hands on people. When you come in in his position as a rookie and you come in and you’re taking these snaps that you’re taking vs. Pro Bowls, week-in and week-out and not battin’ an eye — that’s the kind of guy that you want to see come in as a rookie. The sky’s the limit for him. He just has to continue to want to learn. He has to continue to want to get better at his craft. And continue to take ownership in everything that he does every step of the way.”
Floyd showed flashes of dominance as a rookie and with good health, he should improve on his numbers last season.
Yet with Floyd, McPhee, Young, Lamarr Houston and Sam Acho, the Bears have a very diverse outside linebacker unit. That in itself should create headaches for opposing offensive coordinators and could result in a much more consistent pass rush.
“[We have] a wide range of different types of guys we have in our outside linebacker room,” said Young. “Guys that can play D-end in a 4-3, guys that can play in a 3-4 standing up, guys from all different weight classes, from 225 all the way up to 270-280, who knows, I don’t know how much guys weigh out here. We’ve got a wide range of guys who can play this position.
“When you’re able to do that, when you’re that versatile at one position alone, you can’t just show up during the course of a game and prepare for who you’re going to see that week. You don’t know who is going to be where, who is going to be on which side. And all of us have a different skill set: we’ve got a power guy, a speed guy, a finesse guy, we have a guy who can run through your face, guys who can get to the quarterback. At the end of the day it’s going to be a huge thing that we all come to a common agreement, basically, and we all have to continue to come together and stick together.”
Young said the team’s current level of depth also keeps players hungry.
“The sense of urgency for guys, so many good guys in the same position, the sense of urgency is coming from, ‘I see this guy doing this. I want to get better now. he’s doing this like this. i want to get as good as he is.’ As opposed to when you don’t have that depth, guys get comfortable, guys get relaxed. It’s just a matter of showing up every day and having a sense of urgency to get better each and every day that we step on this field.”
Despite numerous injuries up front, the Bears still managed 37 sacks last season, which was 12th most in the league. Just a slight uptick in the pass rush department should make this a Top 10 sack unit, which will go a long way toward supporting a secondary that sill has many question marks.