This article first appeared in the most recent edition of Chicago Football Magazine, which you can find on newsstands and order at ChicagoFootball.com/magazine/
It was a case of the old meeting the new. Brian Urlacher – the future Hall-of-Fame linebacker who is now part of Bears’ lore – descended upon Bourbonnais, Ill., drove through the familiar setting of Olivet Nazarene University and took in Bears training camp.
As a fan.
With his arms often crossed, one of the greatest linebackers and players in Bears history saw a new world unfolding under coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
Long gone are the days of the Tampa-2 defense – the scheme Urlacher headed and starred in under his beloved former coach, Lovie Smith. Everything is different for the Bears linebacking corps as Fangio installs, tweaks and fine-tunes his hybrid version of a 3-4 defense.
For a franchise best known for its linebackers, there are seemingly more of them than ever on the roster to watch. The Bears have moved on from the old guard. Lance Briggs wasn’t re-signed, and Urlacher is now two years into his retirement.
But they’re still not forgotten. This is the organization forever defined by Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Urlacher.
The question remains: Who is next in line?
“There is a lot of great tradition at the linebacker spot,” second-year linebacker Christian Jones said. “[The linebackers] kind of take pride in that. This is a unit that goes way back [in team history].
“We want to go out there and make plays. We want to go out there and do good because that’s what the Bears are known for. Those linebackers in the middle that really ball out – the Monsters of the Midway.”
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Jared Allen tried to keep an open mind. At 33 years old and locked into a contract with the Bears, he had to, whether it was his first meeting with general manager Ryan Pace and Fox in Arizona or his initial interactions with Fangio.
Switching from a 4-3 end to a 3-4 outside linebacker was something Allen would approach with maximum effort. There was no other way to look at it. He still wanted to play. He’d work on his drops in coverage. He’d work at attacking quarterbacks without his hand in the dirt.
“I had 11 years at a different craft, at a different position to master, and I was still tirelessly trying to master that craft,” Allen said. “And this is just the same thing. You take that same process, that same mindset but once the games come, eventually you’re at your stance, and eventually you’re fighting a block, and eventually you’re doing something, and it’s just football. You’ve got to go play.”
Allen actually found the move a rejuvenating one throughout training camp. It didn’t matter if he was the active leader in sacks; this move might actually help him get more.
“I’m absolutely having fun – 100 percent,” Allen said. “It’s been a blast. The energy around here is high. It’s competitive. It’s uplifting.”
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The puzzle was completed in the offseason. Mixing and matching would be limited. Players would focus on certain positions during the offseason program and throughout training camp.
With old players in new roles and young players looking for jobs, it was important for them to a have focus, a mission to work on after the two worst seasons in defensive history.
“The jigsaw part of the puzzle came early on,” Fangio said.
It helps that it’s Fangio putting that puzzle together – that he’s the one making sense of a roster full of question marks at linebacker. Fangio’s expertise with the position is vast. It stretches far beyond the talented group he coached for four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Fangio was the linebackers coach for the revered and feared “Dome Patrol” of the New Orleans Saints – inside linebackers Sam Mills (four Pro Bowl appearances with the Saints) and Vaughan Johnson (four Pro Bowls) and outside linebackers Rickey Jackson (six Pro Bowls) and Pat Swilling (four Pro Bowls with New Orleans).
NFL Network rated the four players as the best linebacking corps ever. In 1992, all four of them went to the Pro Bowl – the first and only time that happened in league history. Jackson was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
“That was my first group that I got to coach in the NFL way back,” Fangio said. “They set the bar high. I know what a great linebacker looks like, and that’s where we’re striving to get here.”
It’s what Fangio had when he coached Kevin Greene, who has a record 160 sacks for a linebacker, with the Carolina Panthers.
It’s what Fangio had in San Francisco over the past four seasons as linebackers Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman and outside linebacker Aldon Smith flourished. They were essential, Pro Bowl-caliber parts of Fangio’s 49ers defenses, which finished in the top-5 for total defense in four consecutive seasons.
“We need outside linebackers who can rush the passer,” Fangio said. “That’s their primary job because they become our ends in our nickel package, which we play a lot of. They have to be able to do a good job of setting the edge and then survive for us in coverage when we ask them to drop.
“Inside ‘backers, we just need good football. We’re looking for the same thing at inside linebacker that everybody is. It’s athletic guys who can run and cover, take on blocks and make a lot of tackles. Nothing different there.”
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Pernell McPhee has become Mr. Everything for the Bears. At 6-3, 275 pounds, McPhee has the size, strength and tenacity to bull rush interior offensive linemen, and yet he’s surprisingly nimble enough to play outside and drop into any coverage against tight ends and running backs.
This is a big year for McPhee at a personal level. He was never a full-time starter in his four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. Not only does he want to prove that the Ravens made a mistake in letting him leave in free agency, but also that he can be a leader for the Bears. He needs to make an impact; he was Pace’s biggest offseason addition.
“That’s one of my goals is to come out and bring that image of being violent, being a leader, being a great guy,” said McPhee, who signed a five-year, $38.75 million deal with the Bears.
“That’s my focus right now.
“Attitude-wise, that’s it. My attitude is, ‘Hey, I know what time it is – time to be a dog.’ And every play I’ve got to be one.”
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Underlying Fangio’s scheme change is a transformation in temperament. In the words of former coordinator Mel Tucker, the Bears wanted to be a “salty” bunch last year. Now, it’s the players talking, doing it and proving it.
Players have praised the creativity behind Fangio’s defense throughout training camp, and they have declared that they want to be feared.
“We’ve got a chance to create our own identity,” said Lamarr Houston, who has moved to outside linebacker after starting at left end last season. “I believe we’re going to do a great job of doing that this year.”
The difference now is that there seems to be a scheme involved that would spark such concerns for opposing offenses. The linebackers are critical to that. Urlacher and Briggs blitzed, but not like this. Not even close. Under Fangio, the linebackers will be let loose through exotic blitzes, whether inside or outside, on nearly every single play. They will be the beneficiaries of one-on-one matchups.
“What we’re going to do this year is put fear in the other team’s offense,” McPhee said. “When they see us come out there they’re going to be like, ‘Whoa, these guys are playing, everybody’s flying to the ball, everybody is being very aggressive.’
“Me and the guys are talking like, ‘Hey, we need to be the aggressors. We need to be the attackers, not the ones being attacked. That’s our mindset right now.”
The Bears were often under the attack the past two seasons when they finished 31st and 30th in scoring defense. Blowouts were commonplace. The worst was the Green Bay Packers’ 55-14 drubbing of the Bears on Nov. 9, 2014. It came after the bye week, which the Bears went into after the New England Patriots’ thoroughly whipped them in a 55-23 loss.
The past two seasons were loaded with embarrassing moments for a franchise with a rich defensive history.
“I don’t know what it was before,” McPhee said, “but I tell them all the time, ‘We’re dogs. I’ve got your back. Go out there and fight and win, every play brother.’ ”
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Shea McClellin needed a home, and Fangio found him one – finally. After two rough seasons as an undersized 4-3 end and a so-so campaign at strong-side linebacker, McClellin desperately needed it if his career were to continue with the Bears, who drafted him in the first round in 2012.
So Fangio did the unexpected. He moved McClellin to “Mike” linebacker right in the middle of the Bears’ brand-new 3-4 defense and let him handle the play calls.
“I think he’s glad we did now even though he wanted to play outside first,” Fangio said. “It’s a position that relies a lot on experience, instincts, play recognition, and I think he’s getting better and better at that.”
It will take regular-season results for McClellin to rid himself of the “bust” label many have given him after his first three seasons. But the faith Fangio showed in him has gone a long way. It was something that the Bears’ previous two coaching staffs never really did for the soft-spoken player.
“That gives you confidence to go out there and just play your best and be the leader of the defense,” McClellin said. “The guys in the middle, that’s what we got to do.”
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A training camp and preseason spent in fierce competition – McPhee, Allen, Houston, Willie Young, Sam Acho and David Bass on the outside and McClellin, Jones, Jon Bostic and Mason Foster in the middle – has prepared the Bears’ new linebackers. Fox and Fangio believe it, and so do their linebackers. They’ve all said it confidently.
“It’s an aggressive style of defense, and we have one of the best coaches in the league coaching us and that’s exciting,” Jones said. “We have great players here right now. We have veterans, some young guys that can all contribute and help out. You put a guy like coach Fangio with that, we can do some special things if we continue to go out here and work hard.”
A defensive revival, of course, won’t happen without them.
“The cool part about this year is that [last year is] gone,” Allen said. “It’s out of our memory. It’s a totally new start.”
The Bears’ long, storied history of standout linebackers doesn’t bother the current group, either. The names, the legends don’t hang over their heads. If there’s pressure being a linebacker for the Bears, they welcome it.
“It’s awesome,” Jones said. “When I signed here, that was one of the main reasons I signed here. Lance was still here. I wanted to learn from Briggs. It’s just that history. Butkus. Singletary. Otis [Wilson].”
For Acho, there’s more to it. It’s the whole Bears organization. It’s “Papa Bear” Halas. It’s playing at Soldier Field eight times a season. It’s Chicago. It’s the fans.
“What resonates is the history of the team,” said Acho, who spent his first four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. “I just think about the history about what it means to play for the Chicago Bears and what it means to play at Soldier Field.
“The biggest difference is that everything you do in Chicago, whether good or bad, is magnified … That magnifying glass is an opportunity.
“The same things you’ve done or the same plays you may have made, say in Tampa or one of these smaller markets, you make those plays in Chicago and now you’re the hero.”
That’s a hero in the city of linebackers.
Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns