This year was supposed to be different.
For the first time in, well, ever, the strength of the Chicago Bears was going to be their offense, thanks to a gun-slinging quarterback, a pair of terrific running backs, and a deep, tall, quick stable of wide receivers. The Bears, at 6-1, have emerged as an NFC contender—so in some ways this year is plenty different—but the reason for the early success has been the good ol’ reliable defense.
For all the ink Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall have received, the star of the Bears team has been an impenetrable Cover-2 defense.
The numbers speak for themselves. Through eight weeks of the season, the Bears D has allowed just two passes of 40-plus yards. They’re also second in the NFL in takeaways with 23, trailing only the New York Giants, who have played one more game than Chicago. And, already, with more than half their games remaining on the schedule, the team has set a franchise season record with six interceptions returned for touchdowns, including back-to-back picks-6 by Briggs & Tillman, which set an NFL record. Since Lovie Smith became head coach in 2004, the team is 47-9 when they win the turnover battle, including 5-0 in 2012.
Why is this happening? Here’s an ode to the Cover-2 to help explain.
Bend, Don’t Break
The name Cover-2 comes from the two players lined up farthest from the ball—the strong and free safeties, who play deep in order to prevent being beaten over the top.
Simply, the goal of the Cover-2 is to bend, but not break. By dropping seven players deep into coverage, the Bears minimize big plays and concede short plays, the message being: any scoring drive will require an arduous march down the field. The bet is that some time during that 10- or 11-play drive, the offense will make a mistake—or opportunistic defenders will force a turnover or punt.
Smith learned the defense working under Tony Dungy on the Buccaneers’ staff in the late-1990’s. Dungy, known as the creator of the Cover-2, said in an interview with Football Outsiders in 2010 that what makes the scheme so amazing is that it’s so simple.
“It’s not flashy and it’s not high risk/high reward. It’s just basic, sound football,” Dungy said. “There are weaknesses that you have to understand and it takes a lot of discipline for the players to be able to play it effectively and have confidence in what they’re doing…. But more than anything, just like any system, it just takes coaches who know it and believe whole-heartedly in it.”
Despite its name, the Cover-2 depends on the four players closest to the ball at the start of the play—the defensive line—to put pressure on the opposing quarterback.
And the Bears have done it well.
The Domino Effect
Nine different players have recorded at least one sack in the first seven games of the season; seven of those players are linemen. The line is anchored by defensive end Julius Peppers, who, with 5.5 sacks, has been as dominant as ever manhandling blockers, deflecting passes at the line, and torturing QBs. He is aided by emerging star defensive tackle Henry Melton. As a whole, the line has given opposing quarterbacks little time to throw.
It should be noted that the Bears don’t run the Cover-2 all the time. In fact, NFL observers say it seems that Smith is calling the scheme less than he has in years past. The Bears often load the box on running downs, a reason opponents have rushed for just 77.9 yards per game, fewest in the NFL. They also occasionally like to send extra pass-rushers occasionally to rattle quarterbacks, or play different zones besides the Cover-2, such as having one single-high safety (Cover-1), or blitzing corners and dropping lineman, elements of the zone blitz.
However when they need a stop, it’s still the Cover-2 that the Bears usually call on.
The second level of the defense—the linebacking corps—is responsible for protecting the middle of the field in the Cover-2. When a strong pass rush collapses the pocket and forces opposing QBs to get rid of the ball quickly, passes are usually short and over the middle. Waiting for those throws are two of the best linebackers in team history: Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Urlacher is the bigger name, and for much of the past decade, No. 54 has been the better player. His job is to play deep in the middle, almost like a third safety, then come up to make tackles on shorter throws. This year, it is Briggs playing at an All-Pro level. While Urlacher has relied more on great knowledge of the system, Briggs has made more exceptional plays, going sideline to sideline to stop runners and even taking a pair of interceptions back for touchdowns.
There’s a clear domino effect with the Cover-2. The defensive line’s pressure forces quick, underneath throws, steering traffic to the linebackers. And with the linebackers alert to the short throws, defenders in the secondary can be more aggressive, looking to force takeaways. No matter if the Bears are in their standard 4-3 scheme (four linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties) or their nickel package (four linemen, two linebackers, three cornerbacks and two safeties), the secondary has two primary goals: keep the ball in front of them by playing deeper than the deepest receiver and taking the ball away.
A Primary Secondary
This season, Chicago’s secondary has done it better than ever, or with clearer results. There may be no cornerback duo in the NFL playing better than Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, both of whom are physical against the run and tough to beat in the air; nickelback D.J. Moore is no slouch either. Tillman and Jennings have become masters at reading quarterbacks and receivers, knowing where the ball is heading, and making smart plays. Jennings has shown he is a terrific ballhawk on passes thrown his way, and there is nobody better in the NFL than Tillman at punching the ball from a receiver’s hands. Each starter should make the Pro Bowl, and seems guaranteed, as they won back-to-back NFC Defensive Player of the Month awards, sweeping the first two months of the season.
The last line of defense in the Cover-2 are young safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte, each of whom has developed after a year or two learning the scheme. Wright, the faster of the two, has emerged as an instinctive pass defender. Conte, the strong safety, is more likely to make plays near the line of scrimmage and has the reputation as the big hitter. Safety has been a big problem for the Bears in recent years, because even if 10 players in the Cover-2 do their job, it all goes to waste if the safety allows a wideout to get deep down the field. So far in 2012, Wright and Conte have done well in limiting those miscues, a good sign as the weather turns cold and downfield passing becomes more difficult.
Offense may be the big topic of discussion in Chicago. But, as in 1985 and 2006, when the Bears made Super Bowl appearances, it’s the defense leading the way.
Hey, this is Chicago. What did you expect?