Attack From the Back: Building a New Bears Hybrid Defense

What if the "hybrid" in the Bears defense was not where we thought it was?

Note: the following is a hypothetical exercise. It is not "I think they will..." or "I am hearing that they might...". Rather, it is simply "What if they did?"

There has been plenty of talk this offseason about the Chicago Bears changing their defensive scheme. Head Coach Marc Trestman reigned in some of the speculation by confirming that the Bear's defense would be similar to last year's base design in his NFL Combine press conference:

"We're going start from the 4-3 but we've got to be flexible in our scheme to move people around and have the ability to get it done and not just do it because we see other teams doing it."

Much has been made of what that "flexibility" will look like. Due in no small part to the success Seattle had with running a "hybrid" defensive front, and the Bears determined attempt to sign one of the Seahawks most successful chess pieces in that scheme (DE Michael Bennett) to a free agent contract, many observers have speculated that the Bears would likely try to emulate some of the Seattle's alignments and personnel groupings. To clarify, the "hybrid" mixing and matching in Seattle's scheme generally occurs within their "front 7" defenders (their defensive lineman and linebackers).

But what if the Bears went another direction trying to be flexible in their defensive scheme? What if instead of copying another successful design, they innovated and built their own scheme focused on countering the most prolific modern offensive trends? What if instead of moving their front 7 around they instead flexed their back 7 defenders (linebackers and secondary) to try and stymie and confuse opposing offenses? I will outline what that scheme might look like, some advantages it would give the Bears (on and off the field) and highlight some players in the upcoming NFL Draft that could make such a scheme function at a high level.

Why go off the accepted defensive script?

Innovators in the NFL win. Those that can see a trend before it occurs and adapt to maximize its potential often find themselves at the top of the standings, with other teams scrambling to play catch up. Two recent examples of note were the New England Patriots offense starting in 2010, and the aforementioned Seattle defense. The Patriots saw the potential of having their offense based around two tight ends (TE's) that were very athletic and could be used as mismatches in the passing game. This lead them to selecting two TE's in the 2010 draft (Gronkowski and Hernandez) and proceeding to set offensive records using those two players. In doing so they created a scheme that defenses are arguably still trying to catch up to.

Both New England and Seattle saw the opportunity to acquire players that other teams thought were of limited use and place them in focused roles that highlighted a singular strength. Hernandez is the best example of that for the Patriots and Bruce Irvin is a solid choice (among many) for the Seattle defense. Neither prospect was thought of as a well-rounded or complete player, but both of their future employers saw a few specific high-level skills they could use to exploit opponents.

So what should defenses do to cope with offensive developments like the Patriot's design and the 3 wide receiver (3WR) sets that are so common in the modern passing-based NFL? In a word: innovate. Find players that have skills you want for a new system but are looked down upon by other teams as being "incomplete", "flawed" or "tweeners" and add them to your arsenal of defensive weapons.

What advantages would this new approach bring?

"All warfare is based on deception" - Sun Tzu

Confusion is a state that all defensive coordinators seek to impose on their opponents. If an offense is unsure of what a defense plans to do, that offense is much less likely to be successful. Having players in the "back 7" who can cover or blitz with equal aplomb will make opposing quarterbacks much less secure in their pre-snap reads. This uncertainty can give the defensive line (and random blitzers) the extra half a second they need to get to the QB and disrupt his rhythm.

This new scheme would be something that most defensive coordinators around the league are not familiar with. This bit of mystery would force opposing teams to spend extra time preparing to play the Bears. In the days before the wider spread of the 3-4 defense, 4-3 teams would be forced to put in extra preparation during a week they were facing a 3-4 team. This led to less time being spent on other facets of the game plan including special teams. If the Bears were to make their own hybrid system they could introduce that uncertainty and mandatory study back into their opponent's meeting rooms.

This change would also allow the Bears to go after players other teams overlook or undervalue based on their own defensive scheme. The phrase "One man's trash is another man's treasure" comes to mind when looking at the players who were miscast with their original teams (in more traditional roles) but flourished once Seattle identified their specific skills that could fill roles in the Seahawks defense. The Bears would get that same chance to grab players that other teams thought were ill fits for more traditional schemes.

Building the Attack in the Back

A hybrid defense with a non-traditional back 7 could take many different forms and that ability to shape-shift would be a major strength. If you assembled the right cast you could line up in 4-3-4, 4-4-3, 3-5-3 and even what looked like a 4-7 or a 5-3-3 if need be. The key would be finding players who can play multiple roles effectively.

In the hybrid defenses we know today, the roles that are mixed are defensive tackle (DT)/defensive end (DE) and DE/linebacker (LB). Names like "Leo" are used to label players in that scheme who are flexible in their role and position. In the Bears version, 3 roles would be mixed into 2 for a few players: Linebacker/Safety (LB/S) and Safety/Cornerback (S/CB).

While some of this seems like a big departure from traditional sets, football has been around for a while and many teams have used flexibility in their back 7 players to maximize versatility and specific athletic talents. One of the most prominent examples (that will be familiar to many Bears fans) is the position Brian Urlacher played in college at New Mexico. He was a "Lobo-backer" which was that team's term to describe what many other defenses call a "rover" or a "robber"; a sort of hybrid LB/S. It is exactly that kind of mixed role the Bears could focus on incorporating into the new back 7 formations in Chicago.

These new mixed role players would complement pieces already in place such as Lance Briggs at Weak-side Linebacker (WLB) and the newly-renovated defensive line. One huge advantage of this approach would be the ability to integrate with what is already in place (ex: the entire existing defensive line) without having to start over from scratch.

New Faces Make New System Truly Flexible

While some familiar faces will transfer to the new system some new ones definitely need to be added. Here is a list of players from the upcoming 2014 NFL Draft who could find a significant role in this new system:

"Hammers" (Light Linebackers) - These players made plays in college both moving forward and in coverage but now most of them are being knocked as too small to be "pure linebackers" at the NFL level. This would allow the Bears to add one (or more) of these players and turn them loose in "Heavy Nickel" formations where they could either shut down a short to intermediate passing zone or blitz:





40 Yard Dash

Telvin Smith

Florida State




Jordan Tripp*





Kevin Pierre-Louis

Boston College




Terrance Bullitt

Texas Tech




* - Tripp has the size to be a traditional linebacker but flashes non-traditional speed and fluidity for the role (much like Urlacher out of college). Matt Bowen highlighted Tripp's rare skillset in this recent article.

"Heavies" (Big Corner/Safety Tweeners) - With the trend towards bigger cornerbacks in the NFL many big and tall players are ending up playing on the perimeter. Some of them may truly not have the elite quickness or mental makeup to succeed there. The Bears could be a ready-made landing spot for these castoffs and slide them inside to roam the slot and as "heavy safeties" shutting down flexed out Joker (also known as "Move") tight ends:





40 Yard dash

Antoine Exum

Virginia Tech




Keith McGill





Walt Aikens





Daniel Sorensen

Brigham Young




Lonnie Balantine





"Jackknives" (Corner/Safety Blenders) - These players can do it all and have done so on a regular basis. Their college teams swapped them between outside corner, the slot and safety... and back again (sometimes all within the same game). Some may be a little short, but they are versatile, quick and tough:





40 yard Dash

Jimmie Ward

Northern Illinois




Lamarcus Joyner

Florida State




Avery Patterson





Jemea Thomas

Georgia Tech




With a few of these types of players added to the current defensive roster, flexibility and deception in the back end of Chicago's defensive schemes could be taken to a whole new level.

What would it look like?

To give a better understanding of how these new defensive roles could be employed I will highlight a few formations and personnel that could be used to create the new flexible back 7 scheme.

4-4-3: One of the more "traditional" looks that could be employed, but could still be adapted for different situations. The most common look would be a "heavy set" that focused on run stopping (also known as "8 in the box" or "4-3 Monster"). This grouping would have Lamarr Houston, Jeremiah Ratliff, Stephen Paea and Jared Allen on the defensive line. Briggs, D.J. Williams, Shea McClellin and a Hammer (like Jordan Tripp or Telvin Smith) would comprise the next line of defense. Tim Jennings, Charles Tillman and an FS with range (like Chris Conte, or his replacement) would make up the back line.

Nothing really new there, but the very same formation could easily swap out the run stuffing tackles for penetrating 3-technique (3T) tackles, swap out Williams for another Hammer (or a Heavy versus 3WR sets) and then things could get interesting. With McClellin's newly-reported 4.5-ish 40 yard dash time, is he blitzing or pressing the TE? If he drops, does the Hammer blitz, or does he rotate to cover Briggs (who is coming on the blitz of his own)? With that much speed and that many moving pieces the offense will be less sure about where pressure can come from at any time.

5-3-3: If the Bears want to show serious pressure this set could bring it. Imagine a front line of Houston, Ratliff and Nate Collins inside with Allen and Willie Young flexed out wide as defensive ends (playing a "9" technique). Behind them are a Hammer, the LB of your choice (Briggs if still has the wheels/Bostic if he takes a second-year jump/Shea if he shows a knack for the "Mike" spot) and a Heavy. Jennings, Tillman and Conte (or the fastest Jackknife we have) compose the back line. There are plenty of options to flex this set wide into coverage but that coverage will not have to last very long. With that front 5 rushing the passer the ball will be coming out quickly.

3-5-3: The ultimate expression of the new back 7's flexibility. Houston, Ratliff and Collins make up the front line. Young or McClellin would slide off to one edge (in a Leo-type role) with Briggs and Williams in the middle, one Heavy roaming in a "rover" role and a Jackknife (on the opposite side slot) comprise the middle row. Jennings, Tillman and Hayden would provide coverage. So where's the safety? Good question. The offense will have to ask that question too. Does the Heavy drop to the deep middle or does the Jackknife go back? Do both of them drop (for a 4-deep look) while Williams blitzes with Hayden and McClellin covers the short zone? The possibilities are intriguing to say the least. It could certainly be employed to keep opposing offenses off balance.

I would love to see some of these players added and some flexible back 7 concepts employed. If the Monsters of the Midway want to be monsters again, they do not need to look to the past for inspiration. They need to create a future that they rule with more flexibility on defense than the league has seen in a long time.

What do you think about adding players in flexible roles for the back of the Bears defense? Who would be some of your favorite additions to this type of makeover from the upcoming draft? What would you call this new defensive scheme? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

This Fanpost was written by a Windy City Gridiron member and does not necessarily reflect the ideas or opinions of its staff or community.