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 thinking BIG
Originally published Jan. 12, 1986
The playoffs are when whole seasons turn on single plays.
Plays that boil six months of practice and meetings, six months of pain and persistence, into six seconds of football.
Sometimes they’re flukes. They look like flukes anyway, especially when the defense makes them. They’re really not. They’re classic examples of preparation meeting opportunity, which makes for better fairy tales than the princess meeting the frog.
Big defensive plays are always important in playoff games because the teams are matched so evenly. The winning team is often the one that can score the easiest touchdowns, the short drives after a turnover.
They could be more important than usual today, when the Rams play the Bears at 11:30 a.m. at Soldier Field. Those teams have the best defenses in football at making big plays.
They tied for the league lead in touchdowns on interceptions. They ranked in the top three in interceptions, the top seven in sacks.
“There’s the objective of defense right there,” says Bear defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, pointing to a sign in his office. He’s from Oklahoma, so he proudly says, “It’s even written in Okie.” It reads, “Take the sumbich away from ’em inna hurry.”
The Bears do it with blitzing and man-to-man coverage, which harasses an offense into coughing up the ball. Even when they weren’t forcing turnovers, they gave up the fewest first downs in the league. When the other guys punt, you’ve taken the ball away.
“When you blitz a lot, it gets your adrenaline pumping,” Ryan says. “When you play back, it takes the edge off. It’s a stimulating thing.”
That works for the Bears. The Rams favor zone defenses, which put defenders back in better position to swarm to the ball. But as long as the defense takes the ball away, nobody cares how.
Besides, the defensive scheme is only half of making big plays. The scheme can only put players where they can make the big play.
The players still have to make them.
Both teams have those players, too. They’re not necessarily the best ones. They’re the ones with the knack of popping the ball loose or getting to the quarterback.
“I call them aware players,” Ryan says. “You’ve got certain players that have an instinct. They know when to swipe the ball away.” He says defensive end Richard Dent, free safety Gary Fencik and right linebacker Wilber Marshall have the Bears’ best instincts.
Dent may be the best defender in the league at turning ordinary plays into big ones. His awareness was the turning point in two Bear victories and dominated two others.
His tipped pass in the season opener led to Leslie Frazier’s interception and touchdown. Coach Mike Ditka said that play may have been the biggest in the season, because the Bears trailed 28-17 at the time. Against Dallas, Dent intercepted a tipped ball nobody else on the field seemed to find, and he scored the touchdown that ignited a 44-0 rout.
Twice in a row, Dent knocked the ball out of Jet quarterback Ken O’Brien’s hand when most players would have settled for knocking the quarterback down. His game against the Giants last week was a one-man highlight film.
A player like Dent makes his teammates look for big plays, too. “When Dent makes a sack, you can see the tempo pick up. It makes me charge even harder from the other side,” linebacker Otis Wilson says.
“It looks like one guy is trying to outdo the other guy, but they’re all playing together,” Ditka says. “It looks like one guy is trying to run faster than the other guy to get to the ball. If one guy’s not there, somebody else makes it up.
“When you’re playing well, your confidence level is elevated so much. You start believing you’re capable of doing what hasn’t been done or what people say can’t be done. Then those things start becoming natural to you.”
After the Dallas game, defensive lineman Dan Hampton said the only thing that surprised him was the Bear offense outscored the Bear defense. He was joking, but that’s how much the Bear defenders expect big plays.
“There’s some defenses that will stop a formation and there are some that won’t,” defensive tackle Steve McMichael says. “Buddy Ryan puts us in the defense over and over that will stop the formation.”
That’s the scheme half of big plays, the Xs and Os. Ryan puts his Xs where the other guy’s Os want to go. He knows where they want to go by the way they line up, and the players react accordingly.
“If they’re doing exactly the things Buddy talked to us about, it’s sort of like, Wow! They’re really doing it,” middle linebacker Mike Singletary says. “We didn’t just study it for nothing.
“We go out there and they do what we think they’re going to try, and we begin to make big plays because we’re expected to make big plays. Buddy expects us to do our jobs and even more sometimes.”
If a Bear defender drops an interception or misses another chance for a big play, Ryan downgrades him. But at least the player stops the offense on that play. That’s the first step. If you do that often enough, you get the offense trying desperate third-and-long plays and it’s even easier to make big plays.
“You have to do it within the team defense,” Singletary says, meaning each player has to follow his assignment. That assignment might not put him in position for a big play, but Singletary says, “When a guy makes a big sack or a big interception, there’s always somebody else who made it possible.”
The defensive alignment that seems to spew out big plays like a fountain is the 46. It has five linemen and three linebackers, even though the regular 4-3 people play it. The 46 is designed to put pressure on the quarterback with hands in his face and puzzles in his head, which is the essence of Ryan’s defensive philosophy.
He learned it from Weeb Ewbank, his head coach when he broke into the NFL as a Jets assistant. As an offensive coach, Ewbank had two fears.
Ewbank said protecting the quarterback was so important, he would use nine blockers if that’s what he needed. “I figured if it was that important to Weeb to protect the quarterback, it must be important for me to get to the quarterback,”
Ryan says. So he’ll send nine rush men, if that’s what he needs.
Ewbank also said the most difficult defenses were the most varied. If the quarterback knows where the defenders will be, he knows where to throw. So Ryan confuses quarterbacks with more than 80 different combinations where his defenders might be.
“He puts you in position to make the play,” Singletary says.