With new coaches across the board, Chicago Bears players old and new will have to learn and adapt to their new leaders. I've done quite a bit of work during the off-season looking at specific plays that Marc Trestman, Aaron Kromer, and Mel Tucker might be including in this season's playbook. I'll be very interested to see that playbook reveal itself in the pre-season, but there are two particular play calls I'll be keyed in on. Can the offense execute them, and can the defense (still) stop them?
The Inside Zone Run
Offensive line coach and coordinator-in-name Aaron Kromer brought his zone blocking scheme - and his left tackle, Jermon Bushrod - up the river from New Orleans. Pass-blocking is as much a product of individual execution by the offensive line as it is a product of scheme, but the run game won't run anywhere at all unless the offensive line has come together as a unit.
That cohesion will be critical for the inside run game to succeed. On runs to the outside, the running back might be able to skate past an unblocked defender or get help from his lead blocker. If even one blocker misses his man on the inside run, however, that running back isn't going to make it past the line of scrimmage.
Here's that inside zone run featuring one Jay Cutler under center, when Cutler played against the Bears in 2007 under the king of the zone run game, coach Mike Shanahan. On the play side - the QB's left - the center and guard open a gap by doubling up on the defensive tackle. From that point of attack, the blockers simply take the next man over - the left tackle goes after the defensive end and the wingback gets the DB. After the center and left guard have secured the gap, the guard peels off and finds the middle linebacker. If everyone on the line does their job, all that's left is for the fullback to clear out the first defender he sees in the gap: the running back should be able to break through into the secondary.
As that lengthy description makes apparent, there are a lot of moving parts here. I highlighted the five Bears defenders at the point of attack - each of them is engaged with a blocker and unable to stop the Broncos running back. He plows ahead and gets first down yardage, but is finally brought down by our old friend S Adam Archuleta.
If the offense can break off nice runs like this on the inside, it'll be a clear signal that Kromer's gotten his ducks in a row. On the other side of the ball, it'll be up to Mel Tucker to make sure that the Bears defense doesn't allow big runs on the inside. A weak run defense will not only allow opposing teams to control the tempo of a game, they also set up the next play I wanted to look at...
The Play Action Pass
If the Bears can set up effective play action passes, it's a sign that all eleven players are in synch with one another. With the backs - quarter, running, and full - all tricking the defense, the line pass blocking without making it look like they are pass-blocking, and the receivers sneaking past the defense, it is once again a full team effort. If one player blows his route or blocking assignment - or doesn't sell the fake well enough - the QB is highly vulnerable. If the play succeeds - especially inside the twenty - it often times puts six on the board.
You can see what I mean in this next play, a second and goal from the five. With the Broncos getting stymied on a first down run, it was time to try it through the air. Cutler does a good job of selling the fake and getting linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher out of position, but look at what happens. The right tackle misses his block, which causes the running back to hesitate - should he chip the DE, or continue with his assignment up the middle? That moment of hesitation is just enough time for Urlacher to get into one passing lane, and with the defensive end preventing Cutler from hitting his wide open fullback, Cutler has to throw across his body. Urlacher is able to get just enough of a finger on the ball to cause what would have otherwise been a touchdown to fall harmlessly to the earth.
Nowhere is play action more critical than in the red zone, an area where Cutler has long struggled in his time with the Bears. It can't hurt that now has an upgraded tight end in Martellus Bennett, but with question mark J'Marcus Webb now at right tackle, it could be tough sailing when Webb is forced to go one-on-one because the tight end or back is running a route.
On defense, play action might be the single best test of where this linebacking corps is at. If they can either recognize the fake and react accordingly - or at least rally into position in time to make the stop - it's a good sign that the team was right to trust in veterans D.J. Williams and James Anderson. If they prove susceptible to play action and other such trickery, it's a signal that the Bears might have been better off with a hobbled but intelligent Urlacher or the never-great, never-horrible Nick Roach.
What will you be looking for if you make the trip to training camp or once the preseason kicks off? Is there a particular play that you'd love to see this offense run or this defense stop?
Also, I'm hoping to do a lot more with animated GIFs and X-and-Os moving forward, so let me know what you think of 'em or if there are ways you think I could improve them. After all, the Bears aren't the only ones who want to be on their A-game: Ditka be praised, there's a season coming up!