The Bears defense is coached by both the head coach of the Bears, Smith, and their defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli. Of course, we Lions fans do not need any introduction to Marinelli, as he was the head coach of the Lions from 2006 to 2008, when Lions defenses ranked 30th and 32nd twice. On the other hand, Marinelli has done a fairly decent job with the Bears thus far, ranking fourth in the league last year.
Both Marinelli and Smith actually go back pretty far. They both joined the Tampa Bay coaching staff in 1996 after stints in college the previous year. Smith joined the Bucs as their linebackers coach after serving as Ohio State’s defensive backs coach in 1995, while Marinelli joined as the Bucs defensive line coach after spending 1995 at USC in the same role. The two of them combined with Tony Dungy to build this era’s new defense, the Tampa Two. Under the guidance of those three, the Bucs developed players like Derrick Brooks at linebacker and Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp on the defensive line and built one of the best defenses in the NFL.
If you were to ask me, I would have to say that the Bears have built the best Tampa Two defense in the league currently, even though they are nowhere near as dominant as the Bears defenses earlier in the decade. A lot of their success on defense has to do with their key player: Brian Urlacher. In a Tampa Two defense, the middle linebacker is basically asked to run and cover like a safety while tackling and eating up blocks like a linebacker. This makes it really difficult to find a linebacker that can truly fit into a T2, and this was probably the biggest shortcoming of the Lions defenses under Marinelli.
As far as scheme goes, the Tampa Two is actually pretty simple. As I discussed before in the Bucs post, it is basically a cover two defense (meaning there are generally two safeties back deep) that likes to drop the middle linebacker into a deeper spot. This allows the defense to keep everything in front of them while talking away the deeper passing routes from the offense. With the proper players, this defense works out great, as it prevents offenses from making huge plays while still bringing a four-man rush.
Each Tampa Two defense is a little different.While most Tampa Two defenses are quite conservative and rarely like to blitz because it takes away players from coverage (which is the key point in a T2), the Bears actually bring lots of blitzes compared to other Tampa Twos around league. This is quite evident since Brian Urlacher had four sacks last season and has 41.5 career sacks in eleven seasons in the league. Urlacher also has 20 career interceptions, which isn’t exactly surprising seeing how he was a safety back in college. That fact also makes Urlacher the perfect Tampa Two linebacker. Like I said before, a T2 linebacker needs to be quite multi-dimensional and must be able to cover. Thankfully for the Bears, he is one of the best in the league, if not the best.
Now, the Tampa two has many holes of its own. As many people know, dropping back a linebacker into deep coverage often leaves huge areas of the middle open. The play below comes from former NFL safety and current National Football Post analyst Matt Bowen’s explanation of the Tampa Two. In the play, the two safeties drop back and have responsibilities for the two deeper halves of the field. Each linebacker takes one of the shallow zones, while the middle linebacker is left trying to cover both a deeper-shallow (I like to call it mid-field) zone.
This leaves an area in front of the MLB to be possibly exploited. Against average or below average coverage, offenses wreak havoc on a Tampa Two by just getting the ball to tight ends on crossing routes. I remember Jason Witten killing the Lions by doing just that back when the Lions ran the Tampa Two. However, against linebackers like Brian Urlacher, it gets quite tough, as he possess the skills to not only cover that zone, but also to make plays by picking off the ball.
To me, the best way to attack this defense is just by taking what it’s giving the offense. If the Lions play their game properly, the Bears will respect the Lions offense enough to leave plenty of five, seven and eight yard routes open for Matthew Stafford early in the game. If they do decide to get aggressive and blitz, then the Lions will have an upper hand anyway, as there will be fewer players in coverage to begin with. If it was up to me, this would be the prime game to just run a West Coast offense that picks up small chunks of yardage and eats up the clock.
Overall, I expect the Lions to be fairly successful against a Bears defense that is talented enough to hold the Lions from scoring a ton on them, but isn’t good enough to shut the Lions down. In all, I expect at least 24 points from the offense since they will be at home for the first time in three weeks and in primetime.