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.
Bears hope to take Hogs to the block
Originally published Sept. 29, 1985
Chicago may turn out to be Hog butcher for the NFL.
In last year’s playoffs, the Bears showed the league how to fillet the Washington Redskins’ vaunted offensive line for seven sacks and a running game that was little more than a cloud of dust.
Other teams noticed. The Redskins already have seen copies of the Bears’ signature “46” defense, and they’re sure to see plenty of the original in their noon game today at Soldier Field.
But the Redskins’ offensive linemen aren’t to blame for the team’s 1-2 record. Quarterback, receiver and the backs’ blocking on blitzes have been bigger problems. Bear defenders speak reverently of Washington’s linemen. “They’re big and they’re good,” coach Mike Ditka says.
If the Bears’ defensive linemen match up favorably against them, it’s because they’re good, too. It’s also because their defensive formations make the Redskins change blocking styles.
The Redskins prefer zone blocking. They seal off areas. Instead of seeking out and taking on particular defenders, they surge as a group, each blocker trying to flatten whoever is in his way.
When it works, Redskin line coach Joe Bugel says, zone blocking is “like a snowplow effect. Everybody comes off the ball together, shoulder to shoulder, in a forward surge.”
But it doesn’t work if the defense can split up the linemen. “We like to get them working one-on-one, where they don’t have anybody to help them,” Bear defensive coach Buddy Ryan says.
“The Bears force you into man-to-man blocking,” Bugel says. “When you play the Bears, you better get linemen who can block Dan Hampton and Richard Dent one-on-one.
“They’ll make you do it. That’s why we had so much trouble with them last year.”
Redskin injuries didn’t help, either. The line already had changed centers and right tackles last season. In the first quarter against the Bears, it lost right guard Ken Huff and had to replace him with Morris Towns, a natural tackle who didn’t make the team this year.
Still, much of the damage came against the healthy side of Washington’s line. Dent outdueled Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Jacoby to lead the fourth-quarter pass rush. That was when the Bears, protecting leads of six and four points, had three sacks and stopped Redskin drives that began on the Bears’ 36, 40 and 45.
“They kicked our teeth out last year,” Redskin coach Joe Gibbs said last week. “I think that’s the way everybody here feels. Chicago – the way they’re playing and the way we’re playing – could kill us.”
The Bears get their one-on-one matchups from the “46” by crowding the middle of an offensive line. They put one man over each blocker from right guard to left tackle. From the Bears’ left come Steve McMichael, Hampton, William Perry or Mike Hartenstine, and Dent.
The Redskins can double-team some of those four. They can use their back or tight ends. But if they do that, they’ll leave blitzing lanes open for Otis Wilson from the side or Mike Singletary up the middle. “The linemen can only block so many guys,” Ryan says.
The concern over Washington’s offense has centered around quarterback Joe Theismann, who has seven interceptions and ranks next-to-last among NFL passers. Ryan doesn’t blame Theismann.
“They’ve been having some blitzes come clean on them,” Ryan says. “That shakes up most quarterbacks.”
The Bears didn’t have to blitz often in the playoff game. The linemen rushed well enough by themselves. That hasn’t been the case this season, but Ryan said the defensive linemen “had the best rush we’ve had all year” in their last game.
The pass rush will be a moot point, though, unless the Bears can stop the Redskins’ running game. They did it last year. Even with the score close, the Redskins’ last 17 plays were pass plays. They gave up on the run after it produced only 93 yards on 27 carries.
“I’m not saying they won’t pass,” Ditka says, “but they’re going to try to establish the run and we’re going to have to stop that run.”
Few teams do. In a 56-game regular-season stretch back to 1981, the Redskins have had at least 30 running plays 48 times. They’re 42-6 in those games, and 0-8 in the others.
On the other side of the ball, the Redskins win by stopping the run. They’ve allowed a back 100 yards rushing only once in the last 34 regular-season games. But Walter Payton ran for 104 in the playoff game.
The Bears’ safeties – Gary Fencik and Dave Duerson – are keys in a run defense that’s tied for first in the NFL. Ryan sends them up to the line more than most safeties. That’s why if Duerson can’t play becauseof a groin pull, the Bears are apt to go heavy with the “46,” where Duerson becomes a fourth linebacker and Wilber Marshall can replace him.
Another key to the Bears’ run defense is their variety of formations. It creates confusion, especially for zone blockers. Zone blocking requires a lot more thinking than telling a lineman to go find number such-and-such and knock him down.
But the Redskins won’t just throw up their hands and forget about zone blocking because they’re playing the Bears. They’ll try it. “They’ll design some blocking combinations that still make you wade through two or three people,” Hampton says. If they adjust properly, they might be able to avoid the one-on-one battles the Bears want.
“They have a lot of confidence in their line,” Hampton says. “They like to zone block. We like to make them take a stand man-to-man. It’s a natural matchup.”