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Lovie Smith Vs. the Running Quarterback

For all its faults, one thing Lovie Smith's Tampa 2 has done well is defending against a dual-threat quarterback. While there is plenty on tape to back this up, most notably the many games against Michael Vick, the Bears have never faced a quarterback quite like Tim Tebow. The Bears, however, have played many a quarterback who likes to take off, and the numbers show that even the best haven't done their best against Urlacher and company. Follow me below the fold to find out which QBs have defied the trends and to get a breakdown of why the Tampa 2 works so well against a quarterback on the run.

For all the hype that gets built up around "How will the Bears be able to cover the amazing [dual-threat quarterback]!?!" every time they face one, Lovie Smith has never allowed a quarterback to rush for more than 50 yards in a game. Not once. The one quarterback to hit even a lowly fifty rushing yards? Daunte Culpepper, and that was all the way back in 2004. Excluding quarterbacks with three or less rushes in a game - the QBs smart enough to stay behind their protection - the average willing-to-run quarterback has rushed for only 2.5 yards per carry against Smith's Bears. That said, some of the greats (and not-so-greats) have had decent yards-per-carry despite never eclipsing the 50 yard mark - Mike Vick, Cam Newton, Joe Webb, Tyler Thigpen, Daunte Culpepper, Alex Smith, Aaron Rodgers, and our own Josh McCown have all run for more than 4 YPC at least once against the Bears. A strange list, to say the least, but it does nicely break down into three groups: young quarterbacks given frequent run options (Thigpen, Smith, Newton, Webb), veterans who will take the yards when they are there (Rodgers, McCown), and quarterbacks who thrive as rushers (Vick, Culpepper, Newton, Webb).

That no QB has ever run more than 50 yards against Smith is not completely out of the ordinary. Even Mike Vick has only averaged 48 yards per game over his career, but it is a credit to the Bears' defense that they have never allowed a QB to run all over us. Even more to the Bears' credit is Vick's performance in terms of yards per carry. While Vick's career average is 7.2 YPC, against the Bears he has amassed a middling 5.7 YPC. While comparing Tebow to Vick is like comparing a convicted criminal to a man who can do no wrong apples to oranges, whatever Lovie is doing to defend against a run-happy QB, it's certainly working.

The traditional defense against a quarterback who is prone to running is to put a linebacker on "spy" - the LB simply follows the QB around the field, shifting with the QB as he moves around in the backfield and moves in for the tackle if he comes free of the defensive line. In Lovie's Tampa 2, however, Brian Urlacher is already assigned to keep his eyes on the quarterback. After a quick read, Urlacher either moves back into coverage if the QB shows pass or rallies to the ball if the QB keeps it on the ground. Well-designed plays can keep the linebackers guessing, but even if they bite on play-action, the deep safeties will be there to make a tackle. The other key to defusing the threat of a rushing quarterback is the basic nature of our zone scheme.

The strong- and weak-side linebackers are responsible for the short zones to each side of Urlacher, and the defensive line is positioned to either make the tackle themselves or direct traffic towards the WLB and the SLB so they can make the tackle. The defensive backs are usually off the line of scrimmage in their zones, which lets them peek into the backfield to read the play before reacting to the wide receivers and also keeps the opposing WRs from blocking them out of an outside run play too easily. While I can see the Bears playing a lot of single-safety (Cover 3, "eight in the box") this week to beef up against the run, the defensive zones in this coverage are even better positioned to ensure that there will be someone able to make a play no matter where Tebow runs to. Add in a defensive line built to emphasize speed over size - it's hard to run for big yards when Julius Peppers tackles you from behind - and you've got the perfect recipe for containing a quarterback on the run. Other than last week's game against the Vikings, Tebow has only played against 3-4 defenses this season. The modern 3-4, built to defend the pass first in this era of pass-happy offense, is not the best suited to stop a fleet-footed QB. Let's hope that the Bears "stop the run first" 4-3 will break Tebow's string of successes and hold its own in Denver.

The Bears stand to reap the rewards if they can contain Tebow as a runner. For all his winning ways, his QB accuracy is still below 50%. Still, he has done the one thing that poor Caleb Hanie can't seem to do, which is keep the ball safe: Tebow has only one interception to his ten touchdowns. That said, if the Bears can force Tebow into third-and-longs, there will certainly be the chance to get an interception or two. Charles Tillman is more than able to have a good game covering Tebow's favorite target, Eric Decker, who is certainly no Vincent Jackson. If Peanut has success in coverage early, Lovie will pull out one of his favorite tricks to confuse a QB. Lining up, the defense will bring down a safety to show a Cover 3 zone, a coverage that means one of the cornerbacks is playing man coverage on his receiver. The QB, recognizing this, keys into this receiver thinking he has a favorable matchup. The safety who came into the box, however, bails out back into his deep zone, which allows the DB to play the ball instead of the receiver - hello, interception. Aside from this classic bit of confusion - one we saw a lot of in games against Mike Vick - Lovie's defense will probably play a good bit of man coverage to free up DBs and LBs to come on the (run-)blitz. Bears fans know all too well what happens when receivers can't get open - look at any game in recent history for plenty of examples of that - so it would be nice to see the sacks and tackles for loss put on another team's offense for a change.

The biggest opportunity to run against the Tampa 2 comes when the short zones end are stretched downfield, which opens up both the middle and edges. There is a good reason that Aaron Rodgers has been able to put up some solid numbers on the ground against the Bears - outside of the front four, there's simply nobody else there to make a tackle until someone rallies back to the ball. With Tebow, the Bears don't have to emphasize pass coverage - he simply doesn't have the accuracy or the downfield threats to stretch out the zones the way Aaron Rodgers and his seemingly endless supply of receivers can. Unless Tebow can force the Bears to respect him as a passer - and that's a big "unless" - Smith and Marinelli will be flooding the short zones with extra coverage all afternoon. With luck, the only "option" Tebow will have is either to get tackled himself or pass that honor onto a teammate.

While Tebow has looked at times to be just as bad of an NFL quarterback as most people pegged him for, he does have one big statistic in his favor: wins. It hasn't been pretty, but it has worked. The Bears can contain him on defense without having to radically change their basic gameplan, but it's up to Mike Martz to find a way to coax some points out of our ragtag offense. Martz doesn't need to pull a rabbit out of his hat - I doubt this game will be as high-scoring as Denver's 35-32 decision over the Vikings last week - but Chicago will need more than the three points they scored last week to secure a win. I'm confident that the defense will do what it needs to do and optimistic it can do what it is capable of and score some points on its own, but let's hope the offense can do something - anything! - and end this losing streak. I am, however, perfectly okay with a final score of Denver 10, Bears offense 3, Bears defense and special teams, 14.