Phil Emery based his off-season plans on the premise that an improved defensive line would raise the performance of all eleven defenders. And while there are still issues at linebacker and safety, the strong showing of the defensive line in the Bears' first preseason game showed that Emery's gamble just might pay off. The opposing tight ends were still sneaking past linebackers for big gains and running backs were still getting their yards, but consistent pressure from Emery acquisitions Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, and Jeremiah Ratliff sent Nick Foles to the bench with a stat line that could make Rex Grossman jealous.
Let's take a play-by-play look at that first drive to see just what Emery saw both in these new players and how his roster-building philosophy can pay off in the regular season. We pick up the drive after a quick pass-and-catch moved the Eagles out in front of the 20, and while that first completion brought back memories of the last time we saw the Bears take on the Eagles, the tables quickly turned in favor of the good guys.
On this first play, we see a textbook perfect example of a four-man pass rush. On the left side of the line, Willie Young (97) plays his edge perfectly and Ratliff (90) gets a great push against a double team. This double team on Ratliff leaves the right guard and tackle to man up against Stephen Paea and Lamarr Houston, a tough matchup for any two blockers. Houston gets the best of his man, and with Foles clearly feeling the heat, he takes the quick checkdown for a two yard gain.
What really ices the cake on this play is what might have happened if Houston had not beaten his block and Ratliff not pushed the pocket into Foles' lap. If you watch the passing routes, you'll see that Lance Briggs ends up playing man coverage against the Eagles' slot receiver - not a good matchup for the Bears LB. Give Foles enough time to work his progression, and this play might have ended up going for six points instead of two yards.
Thanks to Houston's timely pressure, the Bears found themselves in the favorable position of defending a second and eight. After a timeout to figure out what personnel to have on the field and what defense to call, Mel Tucker decided to dial up an extra rusher to keep the pressure on. With the Eagles sending out every possible receiver they could, Foles was left with five blockers to save him from five rushmen. And as the tape shows, saving him was about all those blockers could do.
We again see a well-executed pass rush. With Young and D.J. Williams doing a good job of keeping in their lanes on the left, Paea and Houston both break through on Foles' right. Houston and Paea miss out on the sack, but the pressure forces Foles up into the pocket. As the well-positioned Willie Young prevents Foles from resetting and working his reads, the QB heaves up a clunker simply to preserve his good health.
That near-interception of a pass proved to be a good preview of the rest of Foles' night. After Jeremiah Ratliff plowed through the middle on a third and eight and forced an Eagles guard to hold, Philadephia found themselves facing third and eighteen.
While third and eighteen against the Bears proved to be an easy conversation for the opposition at times last season, this new defensive line made it tough. Mel Tucker gave us a preview of this season's third-down personnel group, swapping out Stephen Paea for Lamarr Houston on the inside and sending in Trevor Scott (76) as a third defensive end. Add in a quick stunt from Lamarr Houston, and you've got the perfect recipe for a blocking breakdown:
Trevor Scott gets a strong push on the the left tackle, deliberately opening a wide lane for Houston to charge into the backfield. With Willie Young closing the door on the other side, Foles again tosses one up to avoid the sack. The pass falls right into the hands of a wide open Ryan Mundy, setting up the Bears offense well into Eagles territory.
If this is what the Bears defensive line can play like with Jared Allen sitting on the sideline, I'm very optimistic that Emery has once again rebuilt an entire line from scratch in a single off-season. For the price of a single Julius Peppers, Emery was able to pay Young, Houston, and Allen, and by bringing in a wide array of young players through free agency and the draft, the Bears GM worked to add depth to a position group that was decimated by injury last season.
All that said, I wasn't that plussed with our linebacker play in this first preseason game - Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic both looked lost at times. And without coaches' film (the NFL doesn't release it during the preseason), it's hard to say what the safeties were doing, since you generally can't see a whole lot of them on the TV broadcast. The good news is that I'll be breaking down the safeties live from Solider Field tonight on Twitter, so if you're not following me already (@Ronk_WCG), no better time than the present.