Analysis: Lineup stats show demise of Bears' defense

Bears linebacker Lance Briggs watches the Packers' offense come to the line Sunday, 
Dec. 29, 2013 at Soldier Field.
Bears linebacker Lance Briggs watches the Packers' offense come to the line Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013 at Soldier Field. — H. Rick Bamman - [email protected]

When Marc Trestman and Phil Emery evaluate Mel Tucker and the Bears’ defense, they’ll have to decide how much injuries played a factor in the debacle that was the 2013 ‘D’.

According to the NFL’s official stats, the Bears used 265 unique lineups on defense, which is not abnormal – they used 275 in 2012. But with so many starters going down, the Bears used their most common defensive lineup only 3.42 percent of the time, sixth-fewest in the league, and had 15 different starting lineups.

However, that lineup (35 plays) was only seen primarily in Week 17 – it’s the nickel defense look with Jeremiah Ratliff, Lance Briggs, Shea McClellin, Isaiah Frey and the rest of the regular starters, so that group is a bit of an anomaly.

The notable lineup that shows how the Bears’ defense was completely hampered by injuries has 11 players we didn’t see together the last 13 weeks of the season.

The Bears ran 32 plays with their Week 1 base defense: Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton, Henry Melton, Stephen Paea, D.J. Williams, James Anderson, Briggs, Tim Jennings, Charles Tillman, Major Wright and Chris Conte. That group allowed 1.94 yards a carry on 17 runs and 2.59 yards a play.

When Melton tore an ACL, then Williams a pectoral muscle and Tillman a triceps, the unit deteriorated. For the first three weeks, though, it was effective. The run defense was ranked ninth in the league.

For comparison purposes, the base defense with Shea McClellin, Landon Cohen, Jon Bostic, Khaseem Greene and Zack Bowman played 15 snaps together, and allowed an ugly 11.36 yards a run play.

That same base defense, but with Tillman in for Bowman and Paea in for Cohen, allowed 15.36 yards a rush on eight run plays.

The defensive formations that had at least seven plays with Melton in the lineup did not allow more than 4.7 yards a carry. The six most-used formations that had Williams at middle linebacker each allowed fewer than 3.8 yards a carry.

Melton’s backup, Nate Collins, played well before he tore an ACL in Week 5. Teams didn’t rush for more than 3.75 yards a carry against the five most common defenses with Collins in the lineup.

By season’s end, with Melton, Collins and Williams all on I.R., and Briggs having missed seven games, the Bears were allowing 5.3 yards a pop.

The fact that the Bears defended the run better with those interior players in the lineup is not a surprise, but the difference between certain formations is staggering.

For those calling for vast changes to the defense, such as a new coordinator or switching to a 3-4, there is some evidence – albeit, only three games – where this group performed well. And, with this new, high-scoring offense, the Bears don’t need to have a top-10 defense to be a contender.

The Bears, though, championed the “next man up” mantra on loop, and as Nate Collins said Monday, injuries can only be an excuse for so long, especially when a defense is historically bad.

“All teams go through injuries," he said. "I feel like, yes, we probably got hit worse than other teams, but at the same time, everyone has backups, everyone has reserves and you’re always as strong as your weakest link in a sense."

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