Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What the Hell is a "Tweener?" Shea McClellin, Zone Blitzes, and the Evolution of Lovie Smith's Defense

“While the 6-3 1/2, 260-pound McClellin may be a bit of a tweener, he has a track record for getting after the quarterback.”- NFLDraftScout.Com

“Shea McClellin is a tweener seemingly better suited for a 3-4 defense.”- Mark Potash, Chicago Sun Times

“At 6’3” and 260lbs is a true ‘tweener and will likely be asked to add 15-20lbs if his role in the pros requires a hand in the dirt”- Pro Football Focus

Those are just three of the many profiles of Shea McClellin that discuss the biggest issue Bears fans and beat writers seem to have with the pick: McClellin is a “tweener,” a seemingly classic case of a college athlete who doesn’t have a true position in the pros, since he’s too big to be a full time linebacker and too small to be a 4-3 DE. Those are usually the guys that go to a 3-4 scheme, yet here Shea is in Chicago, a committed 4-3 if ever there was one.

So why did the Bears tab McClellin as their guy?

Was it, as some paranoid idiots have claimed, so that they have Urlacher’s replacement on the roster since he’s more hurt than the team has claimed? I doubt it.

Is it, as other paranoid idiots have claimed, because Emery is prepping for a 3-4 in a Lovie-less future? Not exactly, since I hardly doubt Emery would undermine Lovie’s system when all of his other moves have screamed “Superbowl or Bust” this year.

Is it, as I myself and others have suggested, that McClellin’s really not that undersized and that there are numerous examples of 4-3 DE’s who have been successful with similar measurables (one name I should have mentioned as well when compiling that list was Alex Brown, who was 6’3’’, 262 and very effective in Lovie’s system)? This seems most accurate, and would be my guess, but there’s also another reason I think the Bears wanted a “tweener” on their defense.

I was reading an interview today with Chris Brown of SmartFootball.com (yes I mention him a lot. He’s brilliant and you should read his stuff often if you want to pretend to know something) and Brown said something very interesting when he was asked what he was most looking forward to in the near future of football:

“…on defense the big trend I see is to take existing defenses, like the 3-4 or 4-3, but to begin using more “hybrid” defenders in the base defense, guys who were maybe considered “tweeners” a few years ago without a true position. These are the linebacker/safety hybrids and the defensive end/linebacker hybrids, who, when facing all these no-huddle or multiple-formation attacks, must be able to both take on a fullback or tight-end at the line, rush the passer, or drop into pass coverage. You're definitely starting to see it in the NFL as they need players who can stuff the run and cover athletic tight-ends down the field. But you also are increasingly seeing it in college, both given the diversity of offensive attacks from week to week -- pass-first spread to pro-style to option to run-first spread -- and the increasing speed with which they operate in the no-huddle. Defenses don't have the luxury of having time to substitute the exact personnel they want for a specific situation; they need dynamic, multi-purpose playmakers on defense to deal with dynamic, multi-purpose playmakers on offense.”

That, in a nut shell, is the reason why I think the Bears wanted McClellin. Not only can McClellin use his speed as an edge rusher to take advantage of the attention paid to Julius Peppers on the other side in order to get to the quarterback, but also because his versatility is an undeniable asset in an NFL where offenses are rapidly evolving. You can say McClellin lacks the size necessary to take on tight ends or fullbacks, but teams are starting to emphasize speed over bulk at those positions as well (think Greg Olsen, Jermichael Finley, Aaron Hernandez, etc. Those guys are receivers first and aren't going to bulldoze guys like McClellin out of the way either) so in the end it's a wash.

If you look in the Bears own division you’ll see two teams in Green Bay and Detroit who essentially operate under the same principles as college spread offenses. While Green Bay still pays some respect to their old west coast offense background and Detroit’s Scott Linehan uses a one back offense that uses pass concepts from the old Run N Shoot, among others, both teams more or less ignore the run game and move the ball by spreading teams wide with four or five wide receiver sets and putting Stafford and Rodgers in the shotgun. Obviously the Bears need to counter this if they’re going to compete.

One way the Bears counter their aerial opponents is simply by remaining loyal to their system. While people love to claim the Tampa Two is obsolete every time the Bears players struggle, their success the last two years is proof that this scheme only becomes more valuable as opposing teams become more pass-oriented than ever before.

However, the base Tampa Two scheme can only get you so far and often leaves the team vulnerable to seams, slants, and out routes as well as inside runs. The Bears actually play the Cover 2 less than 30% of the time, as they often use Cover 4 and Cover 3 in passing downs as well. More importantly for this discussion is the fact that they also use a lot of zone blitzes.

Zone blitzes? What the hell? Not Lovie Smith, that boring old biddy. Zone blitzes belong to exotic defensive coordinators like Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau. The Bears scheme is as boring and conservative as it gets! Hell, it’s not like they're 2nd in the NFL in points allowed since 2004 or that they lead the NFL in takeaways in that time period. Oh wait. They are. And they do.

Actually, zone blitzes are one of the unheralded mainstays of Lovie’s scheme. As Matt Bowen noted, when Lovie Smith arrived with the Rams in 2001 the very first play he installed on defense was the Storm blitz, where the strong safety and middle linebacker blitz while three lineman rush and the weakside defensive end (likely to be Shea McClellin) and the SAM and WILL backers drop into coverage.

Another zone blitz you’ll see the Bears use with regularity is the Cover 1 Robber, where they use a single high safety in coverage, use the other safety to play man , blitz Lance Briggs, and use Urlacher in the middle of the field in a zone as the “robber” to take away short passes toward the weakside vacated by the blitzing Briggs.

In almost all of these zone blitzes, the presence of Shea McClellin will prove to be invaluable. McClellin, who played nearly as much linebacker at Boise State as he did DE, will be a much better player in coverage than Israel Idonije, and will give Lovie even more flexibility with the pressure he chooses to bring. As teams like the Falcons in 2010 learned, playing man coverage and blitzing Aaron Rodgers leads only to a painful death. Besides simply hoping a four man rush can get home, the zone blitz is the most effective tool the Bears will have against the Packers and Lions offenses. If the Bears can use any combination of blitzing Briggs or Urlacher (or DJ Moore, who they frequently send at the QB) and dropping athletic guys like Peppers or McClellin into coverage, they have a way to pressure those QBs without sacrificing too much in coverage.

So yes, Shea McClellin is a tweener. He’s not your prototypical defensive end or linebacker. If Julius Peppers were to disappear tomorrow and McClellin would find himself as the RDE, forced to take on double teams and carry an entire Cover 2 defense with his pass rush alone, he’d probably struggle. That’s not the plan, however, and by adding McClellin the Bears have actually added a great deal of flexibility to what they can do on defense. Times are changing and anyone who refuses to adapt will be left in the dust. Lovie Smith, who is unfairly criticized far too often for refusing to change, has seen where things are going and knew he needed a guy that’s as comfortable racing around the right tackle to chase Aaron Rodgers as he is dropping into coverage and covering Jermichael Finley. It’s a shame people are too short-sighted to see how McClellin’s greatest “weakness” is actually going to become a Bears strength.