1985 Bears Coverage: Change of plan not in Bears’ plan but Ditka concerned about blitz

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Every day of the 2015 Chicago Bears season, Chicago Sun-Times Sports will revisit its coverage 30 years ago during the 1985 Bears’ run to a Super Bowl title.

Change of plan not in Bears’ plan but Ditka concerned about blitz

Kevin Lamb

Originally published Sept. 15, 1985

When the Bears fell 14 points behind in the first half last week, they didn’t even change their game plan. They didn’t put their running game on the shelf and crack open their good-as-new, hardly used passing game.

They didn’t have to.

They already were passing more than they were running.

“They have an extremely well-balanced offense,” New England coach Raymond Berry said, looking ahead to the Patriots’ game in Soldier Field at noon today. Berry called the Bears “one of the one, two, three best teams in pro football” and their offense “one of the best-conceived in the league.”

That’s music to the ears of coach Mike Ditka, who made balance the primary goal for the offense that has led the NFL in rushing the last two years. It’s especially important against the Patriots’ aggressive defense. If the Bears can’t keep New England guessing, they’ll hear ringing in their ears.

To beat the Patriots, you have to beat the Patriots’ blitz. “Their linebackers come recklessly,” Ditka says. Against Green Bay last week, outside linebackers Don Blackmon and Andre Tippett each had three of the Patriots’ seven sacks.

“Everybody’s trying to blitz us to knock our running game off stride,” Ditka says. “It’s what the 49ers did in the playoffs.

“When you get that, you better be able to throw the football.”

Blocking helps, too. But even the best blocking won’t neutralize a good blitz unless a team also has: Quick pass plays, where the quarterback unloads the ball before blitzers can reach him.

Adjustments to re-route the receivers, where they can take advantage of the openings blitzers leave in the secondary.

A good mix of runs and passes, especially on first down.

“The first thing you need for a good passing offense is pass protection,” tackle Jimbo Covert says. “The first thing you need for good pass protection is to mix it up, so you don’t get in situations where everybody knows you’re going to pass.”

Last week, before the Bears started running out the clock on Tampa Bay, 15 of their 25 first-and-10 plays were pass plays. For the whole game, they gained at least five yards on 18 of 30 first-and-10s.

They were getting second-and-five, or better. They didn’t have to pass on second down. “That makes pass protection a lot easier, when the pass rushers have to watch for the run, too,” Covert says.

A balanced offense may slow down the pass rush, but it won’t stop the blitz entirely. Not for the Bears. Teams blitz against their running plays, too, often clogging the running lane.

When that happens, quarterback Jim McMahon either can send Walter Payton into an ambush, or he can improvise. He can change the play after it begins.

He can’t just do what he wants. The blitz adjustments are in the playbook. A receiver runs to the opening and McMahon gets him the ball.

That was a problem last season. Receivers didn’t always go where the playbook said to go. Last week, they did, and McMahon was splendid.

“He’s thinking all the time,” Ditka said. “When I call them wrong, he calls them right.

“He looked like he had eyes in the back of his head. He made some adjustments and threw to some receivers we don’t even talk about. I’ve never even seen him throw to them in practice.”

Dennis McKinnon, for example, was the fourth-priority receiver on his 21-yard touchdown. “I was surprised he saw me,” McKinnon said.

Tight ends Tim Wrightman and Emery Moorehead caught short passes that gained 27 and 25 yards because they were so wide open. The strong safety was blitzing.

“Teams blitz us a lot, and they leave the short zones open,” McKinnon says. “If you don’t take it, you’re fooling yourself.

“If you keep completing that pass, maybe they’ll forget about blitzing. Or the other guys will come in and you’ll open up a deep

pass.”

The Bears aren’t the only team that concentrated on beating the blitz this summer. New England gave up 30 sacks in its last four 1984 games, mostly because of blitzes.

Since then, Berry has hired a new line coach, installed the shotgun formation, shortened receivers’ routes and added blitz adjustments to the playbook. Against the Bears, he’ll be testing those changes on one of the league’s best blitzing teams.

“I think blitzing’s going to be a tendency around the league,” Ditka says. “Defensive people are just saying, `Hey, we’ll make you do something you don’t want to do.'”

But if the blitz adjustment works, the thing the offense hadn’t planned on doing can turn out better than the play it called in the huddle. Do that often enough, Ditka says, and “people finally might just quit blitzing you.”

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