The Chicago Bears have had one of the NFL’s top defenses for decades, and it looks like that trend will continue this year. The Bears stifled the Falcons’ talented offense in Week 1, holding them to 12 points and forcing three turnovers in an impressive win. The defense did a great job of playing with fundamentals, getting to their landmarks and playing physical. These three things are what the Bears’ scheme is all about.
When developing a defense, it is important to figure out how your defense is going to defend all of the gaps presented by the offense as well as figure out what coverages are going to be played in the back end. The Bears scheme has been brought over from Lovie Smith’s days on the Buccaneers coaching staff under Tony Dungy and while it has been tweaked, the core of it has remained mostly intact.
The relies on the front four pass rushers to disrupt the quarterback through the use of Over and Under fronts. The main disruptor of these two fronts is the three technique. The Over front has the 3 technique aligned to the strong side and the 1 technique aligned to the weak side of the formation.
In the Under front, the 3 technique is aligned on the weak side of the formation while the 1 technique is on the strong side.
These two fronts are 1 gap based, meaning the front seven has the responsibility of filling one gap and charging it, as opposed to two-gapping, which asks the defenders to read and react. These are the two main fronts the Bears defense uses to apply pressure. They have also tweaked it some, as Dungy disciples have done, by introducing more blitzing, particularly with safeties (as can be seen in the video below from a game against the Vikings last year).
The interesting part of the Bears defense is the coverage(s) used to defend receiving threats. As noted before, Smith carried over his Tampa Bay roots to the Bears, and it’s clearly noticeable on Sundays. His Tampa roots are heavily based on zone coverage and playing fundamentally sound football. The two main coverages of the defense are the widely known Tampa 2 and Man-Free, also known as Cover 1. These are the two core coverage’s that the Bears use.
As Tony Dungy noted in his book, Quiet Strength, the Tampa 2 coverage is a blending of 1 high and 2 high principles. The 1 high principle is the division of the field into thirds, which is known as Cover 3. Three deep defenders (one safety, two cornerbacks) and four underneath are blended with Cover 2, which is two defenders deep (two high safeties) and five underneath. What this morphs into is the Tampa 2 coverage, which is a 3 deep, 4 underneath principle. The safeties split the field into thirds with the MIKE dropping down the seam (or “pipe”) and the safeties on the outsides. In this case, there are four underneath defenders: the cornerbacks who are buzzing the flats and two outside linebackers covering the Hook area, which is on the hashes. The MIKE is aligned at five yards off the LOS (line of scrimmage) and drops about twelve to fifteen yards at the snap.
In this coverage, the MIKE linebacker is expected to drop at a tilted angle eyeing the quarterback’s head as well as running with the tight end. This is seen below.
The outside linebackers’ jobs are to get to their landmarks, which is the hashes. They are expected to drop back to the landmarks and then read and react. The cornerbacks are expected to align outside of the receiver and funnel him back inside to the safeties. They use both hands to reroute at the line and then place their hand accordingly on the receiver. If the receiver goes outside, the corner will keep his inside hand on the inside breast plate or shoulder of the receiver before releasing him into the safeties. If the receiver goes inside, the cornerback will simply drop to his designed landmark or spot (hence why this coverage is “spot dropping”).
Moreover, as noted, the second core coverage that the Bears operate out of is Man-Free, which is also known as Cover 1. Cover 1 is a man coverage with the free safety in a zone and dropping parallel to the sideline before reacting to the throw, and it puts eight defenders in the box to stop the run. The cornerbacks are in man coverage, aligning with an inside shade of the receiver and carrying him all the way through the route. The linebackers and safeties are also in man coverage, with the safety typically aligned across the tight end and the linebackers designated to cover tailbacks out of the backfield.
One thing that is consistent about the Bears defense is that you always know what you are getting, you just have to find a way around it. In the coverages they use, the Bears often operate out of a 2 high shell. A 2 high shell implies that the defense has 2 safeties at the back end of the defensive backfield. Regardless of what coverages the Bears play, they will often operate out of the 2 high shell, as seen below, and then roll to the desired coverage post-snap.
The most interesting thing is that they play more than these two coverages. The next coverages that the Bears present are often forgotten and sometimes unknown to fans and analysts — they are the Cover 3 and Loaded Zone.
The Cover 3 was used to help piece together the coverage known today as Tampa 2, but the Bears play the pure Cover 3 concept on game days (they used it against the Falcons). Cover 3 is a pure zone coverage that has four underneath defenders (three linebackers and a strong safety) to go with three deep defenders. The four underneath defenders are required to cover four underneath zones: two curl/flat areas and two hooks. The free safety and the two cornerbacks are splitting the field into thirds in this coverage. Playing Cover 3 allows defenses to hide weak cornerbacks because they are giving a large cushion to the receivers before breaking on the ball downhill.
The final coverage that the Bears run is Loaded Zone. This is one of the most popular coverages in the NFL and is often used against Twin sets, which is two receivers to one side of the formation and Trips to the other side. The Bears used this against the Falcons when they went to Twins and Trips.
Loaded Zone is a double rotated secondary, in which the strong safety will rotate over the two defenders who are aligned across the Twins set. The strong safety is responsible for half field responsibilities over the cornerback and slot cornerback or linebacker. The cornerback on the No. 1 receiver (closest to sideline) to the strong side will jam the receiver and then buzz the flat, like a typical Cover 2 corner would do. The slot cornerback or linebackers’ responsibility is to play the curl, like the outside linebacker would do in Cover 2. On the backside, the cornerback against the single receiver will press and then release him into the free safety deep, who has half field responsibility. The rotation and alignment can be seen below against the Falcons’ Trips set.
The Bears defense is one that is simplistic. This simplicity allows the players to play without much thinking, as a result allowing them to make plays on the ball and often be in position.
The philosophy of the defense is a one gap-based scheme that allows the front four to generate a pass rush by charging gaps instead of reading and reacting, while the pass defenders play quite a bit of zone coverage concepts. These zone coverage concepts require the defenders to be fundamentally sound as well as aggressive, which is not an easy task. The Bears’ coverage concepts are all intertwined, which leads to flexibility and disguises their intentions in the pre-snap phase of the game.
Additional reading: An article from 2001 in which John Lynch touches on gap principles and zone coverage.