Ask Mike Tomlin about the biggest misconception of a 3-4 defense, and he answers faster than a blitzing outside linebacker.
“That base defense is what people stay in,” Tomlin, whose Steelers run the iconic version of the scheme, said last week at the NFL Annual Meetings in Phoenix. “If they choose to be a 3-4 team, the vast majority of their plays, particularly the significant plays, are going to be in sub-package football.”
A 3-4 defensive line, then, becomes a 4-3 — or something close to it — in nickel and dime sets.
That’s more than half of a team’s plays. And almost every important one.
“If you just look at the pure numbers of base 3-4 that are played by 3-4 teams,” Bears coach John Fox said, “it’s probably not near as much as people on the outside [are] making it.”
In nickel and dime, Fox said, the Bears’ 3-4 defense will look similar to a 4-3 “under” front the Seahawks, and others, run, in which the defense slides toward the weak side.
Those facts are worth considering as the Bears continue to acquire players — via free agency and, in less than five weeks, the NFL Draft — to run Vic Fangio’s new scheme.
“If the right pass-rusher is there in the first round, we’ll take that,” GM Ryan Pace said.
The Bears, though, could also use the seventh overall pick on promising receivers Kevin White or Amari Cooper, or on Washington’s run-stuffing nose tackle, Danny Shelton.
If the Bears select a pass-rusher, it would likely be Florida’s Dante Fowler, Missouri’s Shane Ray or Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, though Gregory recently admitted to failing a drug test because of marijuana.
“I think the front-seven guys are pretty deep (in the draft),” Fox said. “I’m not sure the cornerback position is quite as deep, but hey, it’s deep in the sense that you get young guys you’re going to take a shot at.”
Fox’s Broncos signed cornerback Chris Harris as a rookie free agent in 2011; last year, he went to the Pro Bowl.
“So these guys, it’s a good crop every year,” he said. “And one that I’m anxious to get started on a little more in-depthly and hopefully select some Bears that can help us be better on the field.”
Their current players can help, too, though the team won’t know exactly how for another few months.
“It’s hard, because the Chicago Bears defense was a 4-3 defense a year ago,” Fox said. “I watched these guys, every play they played on tape, and now trying to project them into a 3-4 not having ever coached them on the field before.”
Jared Allen and a rehabbing Willie Young will see their roles change as they shift to outside linebacker.
Conversely, Lamarr Houston and free agent signee Pernell McPhee figure to start at outside linebacker, but can play end on passing downs.
That’s key when a 3-4 switches to 4-3 in nickel and dime situations.
“You gotta have a lot of guys that can swing, so to speak,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said, “and put their hand down.”
The Bears added two veteran defensive ends last week — the 49ers’ Ray McDonald and the Redskins’ Jarvis Jenkins — who each will have a chance to start in the base set. Both are better against the run than the pass.
“A lot of times, you know, people you take (late in free agency) that maybe aren’t the big splash when you take them, become the big splash when you start playing,” Fox said.
McDonald became available on a one-year deal because of a series of legal woes. Jenkins was had for a similar contract because he lacked the pass-rush skill that translates to big money.
“Jarvis is a good football player,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “He’s very sound against the run. What you see is what you get. He’s got good strength, good power.”
The Bears lack any real backup defensive ends behind the two, but they have more than enough linebackers. Pace said he plans on keeping as many as nine, which will include McPhee and recently signed inside linebacker Mason Foster.
Still, he wouldn’t rule out drafting another outside linebacker, even after giving McPhee $16 million guaranteed.
By any name, in any scheme, they’re valuable.
“I don’t think you can have enough good pass rushers,” Pace said. “And I think Seattle is an example of that.”
John Fox doesn’t approve of a depth chart this early.
“I kind of have it in my brain, and then they compete,” the Bears coach said.
And it’s too early for that. But as an exercise, it’s worth knowing where the Bears’ defenders line up in their new 3-4 scheme — even if it’s before the team has finished free agency, held its first workout or drafted.
It has holes, to be sure — there are no backup ends to speak of — but it’s what the Bears have, for now:
DE Ray McDonald/Ego Ferguson
DT Jeremiah Ratliff/Ego Ferguson
DE Jarvis Jenkins/Ego Ferguson
OLB Pernell McPhee/Willie Young
ILB Mason Foster/Christian Jones
ILB Jon Bostic/Shea McClellin
OLB Lamarr Houston/Jared Allen
CB Tim Jennings/Alan Ball
CB Kyle Fuller/Demontre Hurst
FS Ryan Mundy/Brock Vereen
SS Antrel Rolle/Anthony Walters