In part one of our playoff preview, John Crist of Bearreport.com and Bear Report Magazine and Doug Farrar of Sportspress Northwest head off Behind Enemy Lines for a breakdown of Sunday’s NFC divison-round matchup between the Bears and Seahawks at Soldier Field.
Doug Farrar: In the first meeting between the Bears and Seahawks this year, Chicagos defense didnt get a sack or force a turnover and got just one hit on Matt Hasselbeck. In addition, rookie tackle Russell Okung basically negated Julius Peppers, which leads to the question: Was Peppers worth the gross national product of France they paid him? How does he affect their defense in a general sense?
John Crist: It’s easy to look at the numbers Peppers put up his first year in Chicago, specifically his rather pedestrian eight sacks, and assume he wasn’t worth the $91.5 million free-agent contract with better than $40 million in guarantees. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth, as he has been the single most consistent defender from the moment he put pen to paper and is more than just a pass rusher his ability to play the run has been better than Bears fans anticipated. While Brian Urlacher is back to being Brian Urlacher again and was just named to his seventh Pro Bowl team following a three-season absence, even the face of the franchise believes Peppers is the Defensive Player of the Year in the NFL.
True, Peppers didn’t make much of an impact against the Seahawks, as that was the only game in which he didn’t record a sack or a pressure, but when asked about it he simply chalked it up as “a bad game” for himself personally.
DF: Hasselbeck said on Monday that the absence of Lance Briggs in the first game was a major component to the Seahawks ability to take the game. How, specifically, does Briggs add to the defense? What is his role, and how do the coaches plan around him when hes unable to go?
JC: Briggs is one of the quiet superstars in today’s NFL, as he is going to his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl not even Peppers or Urlacher has done that and might be the best open-field tackler in the game. Not only does Briggs have the speed to chase down ball carriers from the weak side no matter what direction the play is going, but he is such a crucial element in the Cover 2 because of his aforementioned tackling prowess. The scheme the Bears play allows for short passes to be completed in order for longer throws downfield to be taken away, which means Briggs’ ability to ensure those swing passes and check-downs out of the backfield don’t become big gainers is paramount to the overall success of the system.
Briggs has missed a week here and there over the course of his career, and the Bears have compensated with capable backups like Jamar Williams and Brian Iwuh, but even though those guys tend to finish the game with double-digit tackles in Briggs’ absence, most of those tackles are after longer gains.
DF: Israel Idonije is one player whos come up from under the radar this year. Who else on this Bears team might we see have an impact despite his relative lack of name recognition?
JC: Not to take away from Idonije, who has enjoyed a tremendous campaign as a first-time starter, but when you asked earlier about how Peppers affects the Chicago defense, all the attention he commands off the edge leaves a lot of winnable one-on-one matchups for fellow linemen like Idonije. If you’re looking for an under-the-radar player to watch on offense, I’d probably point to a healthy Earl Bennett in three-wide formations, as he works the middle of the field very well and can be a security blanket for Jay Cutler. Defensively, one player that has come out of nowhere is nickel back D.J. Moore, who was little more than a game-day inactive as a rookie in 2009 but established himself in 2010 as a top inside cover guy and tackles much better than his 5-9, 192-pound frame both measurements are generous, by the way would suggest.
On special teams, while everyone knows what Devin Hester can do in the return game, don’t be surprised if Corey Graham is in on every coverage tackle because it certainly appears that way in the press box from week to week.
DF: You and I have discussed how the Bears offense has improved over the second half of the season, but as someone whos at Halas Hall every day, what really happened to facilitate the changes? Was it as simple as applying protection concepts and eliminating seven-step drops, or was it a more gradual process to that more balanced offense?
JC: At 4-1 and with home dates against Seattle and Washington on the horizon, the Bears inexplicably lost both games and did it in embarrassing fashion, mostly because offensive coordinator Mike Martz forgot about the running game he’s prone to do that, as we’ve all witnessed for a decade now and just about got Cutler killed in the pocket. There was a meeting of the minds at Halas Hall during the bye in Week 8, with coach Lovie Smith and likely offensive line coach Mike Tice urging Martz to be more balanced and give a talent-starved batch of blockers more opportunities to attack the defense instead of being in non-stop retreat mode. The result was a run-pass ratio in the vicinity of 50-50 during Chicago’s 7-1 streak from Weeks 9-16, with Cutler playing some of his best football in a Bears uniform and Matt Forte’s yards-per-carry average spiking considerably.
It didn’t happen overnight, as the Bears were fortunate to beat the then-winless Bills 22-19 in Toronto in Week 9 right after the bye, but they scored 27 points against the Vikings, 31 against the Eagles, 40 against the Vikings again and then 38 against the Jets before the meaningless finale at Green Bay in Week 17.
DF: Former Seahawks team president Tim Ruskell will be able to give intel on a few Seahawks players, though the roster has turned over pretty seriously. What is Ruskells current role, and how safe is the coaching staff and front office if the Seahawks pull off the repeat win?
JC: Ruskell has only been made available to the Bears media once or twice since he was hired, and most of his influence is expected to be felt during free agency and the NFL Draft, so you assuredly know much more about him than I do at this point. Previously, the Bears had on staff a director of pro personnel and also a director of college scouting, but Bobby DePaul and Greg Gabriel, respectively, eventually wore out their welcomes in the front office. Chicago essentially combined the two jobs, with Ruskell’s business card reading “director of player personnel.”
As an interesting aside, Gabriel is currently a contributor at the National Football Post and wrote this week about being on the phone with a prospect in Round 6 of this past April’s draft telling him the Bears were about to call his name, but general manager Jerry Angelo interrupted the conversation and said he had changed his mind and wanted to select a different player. Who did the Bears pick? Dan LeFevour, who was waived before Week 1 and never resembled an NFL quarterback. With whom was Gabriel on the phone? James Starks, who just ran for 123 yards on 23 carries for the rival Packers in their wild card-round win Sunday over the Eagles.