Gabriel: Bears' Defensive Line Setting The Tone

November 27, 2018 - 4:20 pm
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(670 The Score) On a defense filled with game-changing talent at all three levels, the Bears' success starts at the source: up front.

Defensive lines are hallmarks of good defenses, and the Bears have one of the best -- if not the best -- in the NFL. The Bears can rival any team in scheme, playmaking starters and their depth on the defensive line.

On paper, the Bears utilize a 3-4 base defense, but they've seldom played it this season as an NFL that continues to evolve toward a reliance on the passing game. Instead, the Bears usually play with just two defensive linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs.

We could simplify that by even saying the Bears are really in a 4-2-5 scheme. How's that? Well, across the front there are two defensive tackles, two edge players classified as outside linebackers, two inside linebackers and five defensive backs. In practice, the edge players are half defensive end and half outside linebacker because of what they're asked to do. For the most part, they're attacking pass rushers, but there are times that they drop into coverage.

The point is that in discussing the Bears' front, it's fair to included the edge rushers such as Khalil Mack -- but for the purpose of this discussion, we'll address the inside linemen.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio puts his defensive line in a great position to be dominant. The Bears have six down defensive linemen on their roster and have dressed five of them in every game. And in each of those 11 games, all five have received regular playing time. Here's a look at those snap counts:

Akiem Hicks: 72.4 percent
Eddie Goldman: 51.2 percent
Roy Robertson-Harris: 33.8 percent
Jonathan Bullard: 30.1 percent
Bilal Nichols: 26.2 percent
Nick Williams: 5.6 percent

Nichols' numbers are also a bit deceiving, as he wasn't active in the season opener and missed another game with an injury. In recent weeks, he's been playing closer to 40 percent of the defensive snaps.

That rotation not only keeps players fresh, but it allows Fangio to play to each individual's strength. Hicks is dominant as both a run defender and a pass rusher, and that's why he gets the majority of the snaps. He's playing at a Pro Bowl level and wreaks havoc like few others can. Hicks is 6-foot-5 and 332 pounds, and his strength, power and athleticism are rare for a player as big as he is.

Goldman is best as a run defender but also does enough to also get a consistently good push to collapse the pocket when used as a pass rusher. He has significantly improved as an overall player, and part of the reason is that he lost weight and became quicker. That spurred his growth as a pass rusher.

Robertson-Harris and Bullard are athletic players who rush the passer better than they defend the run, though they're solid in the latter regard as well. Robertson-Harris has taken a big step since his rookie year in 2016, when he spent the season on injured reserve. He played outside linebacker in college and came to the Bears at about 255 or 260 pounds. He's now closer to 300 pounds and has vastly improved his strength and explosion. While Robertson-Harris is a backup in Chicago, he could be a starter on many teams in the NFL.

Bullard has been a contributor, though he hasn't taken the jump that the Bears would've liked considering his standing as a third-round pick in 2016. He flashes but his down after down consistency isn’t as good as the others.

Nichols has been the pleasant surprise of the group. When the Bears drafted him in the fourth round last April, I thought they envisioned him being a project who wouldn't contribute on a regular basis until 2019. He's certainly exceeded those expectations. 

In college at Delaware, Nichols' job was to serve as a two-gap nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme, a spot in which he was tasked with controlling two offensive linemen. His job wasn't to attack, so we didn't get much of a glimpse of his pass rushing skills. He flashed a better all-around game at the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl. Once he started receiving NFL coaching, Nichols took off and has produced ahead of schedule, with 19 tackles, three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles this season.

What is also noteworthy about the Bears' five top defensive linemen is that Hicks is the oldest in having just turned 29. Robertson-Harris is the the next-oldest at 25, meaning the group could remain together and grow for some time. That's a good start to the Bears continuing to have a dominant defense in the years to come.

Greg Gabriel is a former NFL talent evaluator who's an on-air contributor for 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @greggabe.​​​​