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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery

They often say the NFL is a copycat league. Sometimes this is an infuriating development, like when Mike Martz inexplicably tries to run the wildcat with Devin Hester because the Dolphins manage to beat the Patriots with it one time.

Other times, it just makes sense, like the proliferation of the West Coast Offense or the number of teams that have started to use the spread or run most of their offense out of the shotgun because it suits the abilities of their quarterbacks.

In the Bears case, Phil Emery has very clearly had two franchises that he's focused on emulating the last two seasons. The Bears offense, while original any many ways thanks to Trestman's sometimes unorthodox approach, shares many broad similarities and an over-arching philosophy with the vastly successful Saints attack, thanks to Trestman's close relationship with Sean Payton and his hire of Aaron Kromer as offensive coordinator. Obviously this approach has been successful, with the Bears actually out-scoring their de facto mentors this past year. Thanks to the recent moves to lock up Jay Cutler, Matt Slauson, and now Brandon Marshall, they should be able to compete at that level for at least a few more years.

This year Phil Emery has very obviously decided to model the defense after the Seahawks. This only makes sense, since the Seahawks are clearly the best defense in the NFL, but it's not exactly surprising that any number of teams are hoping to emulate what Pete Carroll and John Schneider built in the northwest.

Unlike many failed imitations in NFL history, however, the Bears may be able to make this defensive conversion work. While it's unlikely the defensive makeover will result in the Bears defense outpacing their role models like the Bears offense did, it's worth examining how Emery has attempted to copy the Seahawks approach.

1) Big corners: Charles Tillman, Kyle Fuller, and Tim Jennings are not quite the size of Richard Sherman or Brandon Browner, but Tillman and Fuller are both bigger corners, and all three are sure tacklers capable of squaring up offensive players and securing the edge without help. It's worth remembering that just a year before the disaster of 2013, Tillman and Jennings were the starting corners in the Pro Bowl. While they're undoubtedly unlikely to repeat that performance this year, there's no reason to think a healthy Tillman and Jennings can't give the Bears the flexibility they need to play the Cover 1 and Cover 3 coverages that Seattle likes to use most and allow the defense to be successful.

2)A defensive line of interchangeable parts: last year the Seahawks had one pure edge rusher in Cliff Avril. Avril was a liability against the run and pretty much always has been, but the Seahawks had enough versatile pieces around him to allow him to do what he does best.

Enter Jared Allen for the Bears. Allen was never even close to being as good of a run defender as he was a pass-rusher, and to expect him to improve in that department as a Bear would be fool-hardy, but he can still be a pass-rush specialist for a team that won't ask him to do much more than that.

Outside of Avril, the Seahawks featured twolarger than average defensive ends who often rotated to DT in  Michael Bennett, and Red Bryant. The versatility of these three players allowed them to hide the fact that Seattle didn't have the truly dominant 3 technique associated with many great 4-3 defenses.

This year the Bears have a very versatile DE in Lamarr Houston who is very similar physically to Bennett. While Houston lacks the pass-rush ability of Bennett, he's still productive in that department and is as capable of playing the 3 technique as Bennett. While Willie Young probably won't slide inside very often, he proved last year that he can set the edge against the run and will likely be moved around from left and right end, and maybe even to OLB in some packages, much as the Seahawks rotated the similarly-sized Chris Clemons.

The Bears also have two different defensive tackles in Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea who have experience both in primarily run-stopping roles (Ratliff a 3-4 nose guard, Paea as a 4-3 nose), but have the speed and flexibility to contribute at 3 technique. Behind them are the newly drafted Will Sutton (a natural 3 technique when he's at his peak weight, but who bulked up and got experience playing the nose as well last year) and Ego Ferguson. Ego is clearly the person meant to be the Bears eventual answer to Brandon Mebane, a big, hulking man-monster who controls two gaps and frees up the rest of the line to attack the backfield.

While they have to prove it on the field, I believe there's a enough talent on that Bears defensive line to match the production Seattle got from its front four last year.

3) Move your pass-rush specialist to SLB: Bruce Irvin was a surprise pick at #13 in 2012, and after a fairly successful first season and 8 sacks as a rookie, the Seahawks made the curious decision to move Irvin to SLB in order to create more opportunities for Avril, Bennett and Clemons at DE. The move actually worked pretty well as Irvin's athleticism made him a great fit at OLB, and he was able to utilize his pass rush skills in blitz packages. Avril finished the season with 45 tackles, an INT, 2 sacks, and 15 hurries despite getting off to a slow start thanks to a 4 game suspension. The Bears are hoping Shea McClellin, a similar athlete, can enjoy a similar result.

Unfortunately there's two major pieces missing from this puzzle, one of whom is arguably the single most important player on the Seahawks defense. Ryan Mundy may be a perfectly capable strong safety, but I don't think he's Kam Chancellor, and while there's reason to like the talent of Brock Vereen, I don't know if I could drink enough to make him look like Earl Thomas.

Without that athleticism and talent at safety it's unlikely the Bears can come close to duplicating the defensive success the Seahawks enjoyed last year, but with the comparable talent in the front seven and corner, there's certainly enough pieces in place, combined with that already elite offense, to get this team into the postseason, where they'll maybe have the chance to surpass one or both of their heroes.

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