1985 Bears Coverage: Twilight zone: Ditka, Ryan

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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.

Twilight zone: Ditka, Ryan

Kevin Lamb

Originally published Sept. 24, 1985

Coach Mike Ditka liked the Bears’ defense at Minnesota last week because it forced four turnovers.

Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan didn’t like the defense at Minnesota because it gave up 445 yards.

“The turnovers are coming because we’re playing more zone,” Ditka said. “I’d like to see them play it more. I thought they did a hell of a job.”

Ryan second-guessed himself. “We played too much zone,” he said. “A lot more than usual.”


This one philosophical difference between Ditka and Ryan has endured beyond all the occasional brush fires they’ve created with disagreements about personnel. Ryan measures a defense by the

points and yards it gives up. Ditka is willing to trade yards for turnovers.

Whether a team takes the ball away by not allowing a first down or by intercepting a pass, it has done its job.

The ideal defense would do both. But it probably would need more than 11 players.

Zone coverage makes turnovers easier because the players face the line of scrimmage. But it gives the quarterback more room to complete a pass because the defenders aren’t as close to the receivers.

Man-to-man coverage brings the defenders closer to the receivers. But the defenders don’t see the ball as soon after it’s passed, and they aren’t spread as evenly across the field. They’re more apt to tackle one-on-one, when it’s dangerous to try to knock the ball loose.

“I think Buddy’s got a good blend of zone and man going on right now,” Ditka said after the Minnesota game. “I really like it.

“When you’re playing zones and you’re not used to playing them that much, you’re going to get some breakdowns. We didn’t play as well as we will.”

No cost

Still, Ditka said, aside from four passes on the Vikings’ three touchdown drives, “They just messed around up and down the field.” They gained yards, but not costly ones.

“I think the bottom line is, what happened?” Ditka said. “The defense got four turn overs, and that’s football. That’s what counts.

“I don’t want to hear about yardage. Yardage doesn’t mean beans. Two years ago, we averaged over 400 yards in our first two games and we were 1-1. To me, defense is stop the team when you’ve got to stop them and create turnovers.”

Even last year, when the Bears ranked first or nearly first in virtually every defensive category, they were weak in turnovers. They tied for 10th in interceptions and tied for 16th in turnovers.

Keep the faith

Nobody has more faith in man-to-man, bump-and-run pass coverage than Willie Brown, the Hall of Fame cornerback and Raider assistant coach. But even Brown concedes its weakness is in turnovers. “Playing off the man, you can see the flight of the ball,” he says.

That doesn’t mean teams can’t intercept passes in man-to-man coverage. “You can get turnovers out of anything if you catch the ball,” Ryan said.

Ditka and Ryan both pointed out cornerback Mike Richardson’s dropped interceptions. He had two at Minnesota and two against Tampa Bay. They also said it was a good sign he was coming close to the ball.

“It means he’s breaking on the football,” Ditka said.


Most likely, the Bears will vary their pass coverage according to their opponent. Against the Redskins Sunday, they’re liable to play more man-to-man. The Redskins have been vulnerable to blitzes, which don’t leave enough pass defenders back to use zones.

“If playing man is what does it or playing zone is what does it, we’ll do it,” Ditka said.

“We’re getting better at playing zone. You never know. They might hold the next team down to beans in the passing game. We’re awfully capable of doing those things.”

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