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 wary of blitz
Originally published Jan. 5, 1986
The Bears will notice Lawrence Taylor today from the moment he leaves his telephone booth in the locker room.
Well, maybe he doesn’t wear a cape after all. He doesn’t even wear out offenses all the time. But the New York Giants’ all-pro linebacker gets more respectful attention on a football field than Bill Cosby at a PTA meeting.
Bill Walsh even tinkered with his Swiss-watch offense to stop him. He has beaten him by pulling a guard into his path, although that didn’t help the 49ers much a week ago.
Redskin coach Joe Gibbs called Taylor the inspiration for his one-back offense. He needed the extra tight end to block Taylor. The traditional back-vs.-linebacker matchup won’t work.
“The mistake people make against the Giants is trying to let backs block their linebackers,” says Steve Fuller, who will back up Bear quarterback Jim McMahon today. “You can do it sometimes, but not all day long. I think you’ll see left tackle Jimbo Covert on Taylor a lot.”
If that doesn’t work, there’s always Walter Payton’s solution for beating Taylor. “You hope he falls down so you can run around him,” Payton said.
It’s not that hopeless. The thing to remember about Taylor is he’s really a defensive end. He stands up like a linebacker, and the Giants list him at linebacker in their 3-4 defense, but if he’s the only linebacker going after the quarterback, he’s not really blitzing. He’s the fourth man in a normal four-man rush.
The trouble is, Taylor often is the fourth man in a five or six-man rush. He may not the biggest problem the Bears’ offense will face in getting past today to the NFC championship game, but he’s the most obvious symptom. The problem is the Giants’ blitz.
The Bears are amply familiar with blitzes. They’ve gained faster popularity in the NFL than deferred annuities the last few years, and the Bears’ defensive success is one of the big reasons.
“People are realizing when we put seven or eight guys up there, it gives the offense some unusual problems,” Fuller says. “If there’s any kind of defensive innovation in the league, that’s where it stems from.”
The Bears also have invited the blitz. Their league-leading running game the last three years has brought blitzers salivating into the backfield like a dinner bell. The Jets, in particular, showed how hard it was to run against the blitz.
“You don’t run against it,” coach Mike Ditka said after the Jet game. “You throw the ball more.
“If people think they have to take Payton away from us in the playoffs, we’ll throw the football. We’re not going to throw it downfield as much as San Diego or somebody, but we’re capable of throwing the ball with just about anybody.”
He meant short passes, the kind Soldier Field winds won’t throw back in a quarterback’s face. Quick sideline passes, to a tight end or a wide receiver.
The Bears probably will try some of those to Taylor’s side. “We’ve got to make him play the game of football the way it should be played,” Payton says. For a linebacker, that means covering receivers instead of smothering quarterbacks.
They’ll run, too. They didn’t bring Payton to the playoffs to keep him under glass. Running into the blitz might produce 10 yards on the first 10 tries and 50 on the next one.
Against an aggressive defense, it’s especially important to mix runs and passes. The Giants rush five or six men 28 percent of the time on first down – an unusually high figure – and even more often on second-and-10 or more. “You put yourself in too many predictable situations, and they’re going to give you a headache, especially your quarterback,” Ditka says.
If the wind is agreeable, quick passes downfield are the best way to beat the blitz. Cornerbacks have to cover wideouts all alone because their usual helpers are hightailing it toward the quarterback. In fact, the more liberal pass interference rule this season might be a reason blitzing continued to increase. It makes one-on-one coverage a little less risky.
But blitz coverage is still not something quarterbacks think about when they’re trying to relax. “All you’ve got to do is beat them to the outside,” Ditka says. “They give you the outside.” They have to. There’s too much room on the inside.
Cornerback is the weak spot in the Giants’ defense, too. They ranked among the top five in most categories, but they were tied for 12th in touchdown passes allowed and eighth in points allowed.
There are three basic steps for quarterbacks and receivers to beat the blitz.
Recognize it, preferably before the snap. Change the play to something designed for the blitz. McMahon is uncanny this way. His audibles have a way of finding the end zone. But the Giants will try to confuse him by faking blitzes.
Adjust the play after it starts. Any pass play has a “hot” receiver, the one with the best chance to be open against a blitz. But he has to notice the blitz in time to change his route.
Get open quickly. The idea behind blitzing is to bring the play to a quick conclusion. If the receiver gets bottled up at the line, the play ends with the quarterback on his back. “You can’t be jitterbugging, or you’re dead,” wideout Dennis McKinnon says.
“You’ve got to just be alert all the time,” McMahon says. “If they blitz, they’re susceptible to the big play. If we make the right blocks and adjustments, we can get it.
“We’re going to have to come up with some big plays to beat them. They’re not going to give us many chances, except when they’re blitzing.”
The Giants led the league in sacks, 68 to the Bears’ third-ranked 64. Taylor isn’t the only headache. He had 13 sacks, but Leonard Marshall, the end on his side, had 15 1/2. It won’t help to gang up on Taylor if Marshall comes free.
Besides Covert, center Jay Hilgenberg will be an important blocker. Most centers need help against nose tackle Jim Burt. If
Hilgenberg can handle him alone, as he does most nose tackles, that will free an extra body to help on Taylor and Marshall.
Payton, too, finally may draw the raves he deserves as a blocker. If any back can stand up to Taylor, it’s Payton. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Lawrence Taylor, Hugh Green, Mike Ditka or Bugs Bunny,” Payton says. “You’ve got to do your job.”
Those quick sideline passes are more fun to watch, but blocking the blitz is the best way to turn disaster into annoyance. Ditka talked last week about missed assignments and lack of concentration. “I think our pass protection’s been off the last three weeks,” he said. But those games didn’t mean anything.
“It’s amazing how much egos play a part in pro football,” defensive tackle Steve McMichael says. In a nationally televised
playoff game, he says ego means making the guy across the line look bad.
McMichael said the Bears seemed to be wearing their egos on their forearms in last week’s practices. It’s very simple, he said. “If you don’t want to be the best, get out.”