Near the eve of the 2017 regular season opener, the Bears' Leonard Floyd celebrated his 25th birthday. A birthday that would hypothetically come before the breakout NFL season of his life. A coming of age, if you will. Three games, eight tackles, and zero sacks later, most everyone around Halas Hall is still waiting for the 25-year-old to launch.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly one reason why Floyd is struggling to make an impact as a pass rusher. He is the Bears' defenses' most versatile and athletic player, so you'd figure defensive coordinator Vic Fangio wants him deployed as the Swiss Army Knife he's capable of being. The only problem is, without much capable and consistent edge pass rush help behind him (a sack each by Willie Young and Pernell McPhee against the Steelers not withstanding), you neuter that part of the defense when you don't send your best edge rusher on a regular basis.
That isn't to say that Floyd has done well in his 87 pass rush snaps to this point in the season either. When he gets opportunities, he's either effectively doubled or chipped, or isn't using his hands and leverage as well as he has in the past in rare one-on-one match-ups. He's out of rhythm and out of sync completely, and it reflects in the numbers. Pro Football Focus has the sophomore player logged with a paltry three total hurries on the season and two total quarterback hits. Not exactly the disruptive pass rusher expected out of Floyd.
Consider overuse as well in this frustration.
Floyd is currently fourth on the Bears in defensive snaps with 171. Only Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller, and Marcus Cooper have played more and that trio is all defensive backs: a much less taxing position than an edge player. The next edge player is Young at 90 snaps, only a little over a half of how much Floyd is playing. Needless to say, it's a drastic problem when your next best outside linebacker isn't even touching your franchise guy in playing time and it casts a spotlight on a major need for the Bears in next April's draft.
Of those 170 snaps, Floyd has played 23 of them in coverage according to Pro Football Focus, with 12 coming against Pittsburgh last Sunday. It's not as if he hasn't fared well in this aspect, to be fair. For an outside linebacker such as Floyd to allow only four receptions for 85 yards and even have a pass defensed is an immense victory. It certainly justifies the belief in the ability Fangio and company have in their face of the unit.
However, it doesn't mean it's any less limiting to a pass rush that has to rev up the motor as the regular season winds up. If this Bears defense is going to be elite and reach it's potential, Floyd has to be successful as a pass rusher too. Sure, they can use him everywhere, but it's time to pile on the more impactful plays i.e. sacks.
With time, those sacks will come. Perhaps, even tonight against an incredibly banged up Packers offensive line. But let's take a look at two plays from last Sunday that perfectly exemplify the kind of player Floyd is right now for the Bears.
The first is an early fourth quarter coverage snap from Floyd with the Steelers looking to knot up the game at 17.
You'll note immediately that the Bears elect to rush four by blitzing inside linebacker Christian Jones and instead have Floyd work outside in a matchup versus the slot receiver. It doesn't totally boggle the mind as to why Fangio would prefer this output, as Floyd isn't Bambi in coverage anymore, but when you have other talented corners, you can effectively trot in a heavy dime (more defensive backs) defense instead.
At any rate, Floyd does a quality job of staying with rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for the most part. He doesn't allow himself to get caught in well-designed crossing patterns that aim to throw defenders off and sticks with Smith-Schuster all the way through a knot route - where a receiver runs hard inside and cuts back outside quickly to create space. The only issue with that is that Smith-Schuster, being the receiver he is, is faster and quicker than an outside linebacker like Floyd, even as athletic as he is.
For matchup purposes, Floyd did as well as he could here against Smith-Schuster and in coverage in general against Pittsburgh. His versatility in playing almost 18 percent of defensive snaps dropping back against both the Falcons and Steelers is a great reason why the Bears were able to limit both offenses so well. A worthwhile showcase of his talents. He was merely set up to fail in misguided scheming on this individual play. If there was a 3-4 outside linebacker you wanted in coverage, Floyd would probably be your first choice every time. You don't want him lined up on explosive receivers with regularity, though.
Ultimately, this one play wasn't a complete indictment of how the Bears have used him because Floyd's talents merits the belief. Watch how he smoothly he moves in that respect and it's all the evidence you need.
Now let's get to the truly ugly and no doubt where the Bears are working to improve Floyd and unleash him as their most integral defensive piece. The part of his game where Floyd is also clearly trying to get off the ground running: his pass rush.
The next play comes near the end of the first half, with the Bears desperately trying to keep Pittsburgh off the board and out of offensive rhythm before the break.
On a first down play, Fangio dials up a stunt that allows Floyd to get a free shot at Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Interestingly enough, it doesn't involve Akiem Hicks, Jonathan Bullard, or even Roy Robertson-Harris, but instead, Young. Yes, the Bears lined up two outside linebackers to one side, which in hindsight should've tipped someone off on that Pittsburgh front.
The scheming does work, as Young quickly crashes inside to drive back Steelers all-worldly right guard David DeCastro. Floyd gives tackle Marcus Gilbert a little bit of a stutter and then quickly flies down the fast lane Young creates for him down the middle in the shift. And there's no mincing words here: Floyd simply flat out misses Roethlisberger, who he had dead to rights.
There's no way to ever understand what went through Floyd's mind in the moment but the pre-emptive jump into the air to almost catch Roethlisberger was unnecessary and what allows the quarterback to side step him and launch a deep bomb that for the Bears thankfully fell incomplete. I'd guess Floyd was a little over eager and out of control as he hadn't seen that much green grass in front of him and a quarterback so far, and over thought the context of the play. If he simply stays grounded and follows the path Young creates for him on the stunt, Roethlisberger likely doesn't evade the edge rusher and is planted summarily.
More than anything, this pass rush stunt exemplifies how the Bears want to free up their best defensive player continually. This play with Young and Floyd is similar to any partner the Bears used last year to free him up for a free shot. Floyd, much like in a regular pass rush play, just has to approach these kinds of plays with proper technique and patience moving forward, as he works to set up the offensive linemen in front of him.
Being a dominant pass rusher isn't rocket science. The degree of difficulty might be accelerated when you're being asked to do everything for a defense the way Floyd is, but there's no inherent complexity not easily understood about what is really an art form. You find a rhythm. You set up your man in front of you for a future move later in the game. You finish a play and get your blocker on his heels. You build up confidence. Rinse, repeat.
For as much of a versatile Swiss Army Knife Floyd is, he and the Bears certainly understand what's been ailing his primary repertoire as a player. They're not going to stop using him the way they have been all over the field because he's proven he can handle the responsibility.
But it's time to unleash the entire beast. It's time for the double-digit sack edge rusher in Floyd everyone knows is lurking in the background, including Floyd himself, to make his stamp on games over and over. As mentioned, a bad Green Bay offensive line might be the remedy. Have no fear: the big plays are on their way.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is an editor for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.