American Football

A Scout’s Take: The importance of scheme fit when adding defensive linemen

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NFL Combine
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Our resident scout, Greg Gabriel, explains why some defensive lineman aren’t fits for what the Chicago Bears are building in the trenches.

Every year, there are several quality players available in veteran free agency and the NFL Draft. Just because they are good prospects, that doesn’t mean they can play in a certain team’s offensive or defensive schemes. In today’s NFL, it’s imperative that a team find players who are capable of playing within their scheme.

There used to be the thought process that a club should just draft good players and find a way for them to fit within the scheme. That is false thinking and sets a club up for losing. I had the opportunity to work with Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells for seven years in New York with the Giants, and Bill had a saying;” If you start drafting exceptions, you’re going to have a team full of exceptions… and then you’ll lose.” It’s a very true statement!

Head coaches and Coordinators are hired because of the schemes they will implement with their team. One of the reasons the Chicago Bears hired Matt Eberflus as their Head Coach a year ago was because he ran a very successful scheme (the Tampa-2) while he was the defensive Coordinator in Indianapolis. Coach ‘Flus has spent his entire NFL career working in that scheme, starting when he was the linebackers coach in Dallas under former Bears Coordinator Rod Marinelli.

Marinelli had coached that scheme since he came into the League in Tampa Bay under Tony Dungy. Another person on that Tampa staff was Lovie Smith, who was the linebackers coach at the time. The scheme is very sound and successful, but in order for the scheme to work properly, the team has to have the right type of players.

When Lovie was hired here as Head Coach of the Bears in 2004, we had very few players on the defensive line that could actually play within that scheme. The previous years, the Bears ran a 4-3 system under Greg Blache that relied on many 3-4 scheme principles. In order for that scheme to work, big strong defensive linemen were needed as they were asked to “2-gap” opposing offensive linemen. When a DLineman uses a 2-gap technique, he has to control two separate gaps. He usually lines head up on an offensive lineman and prevents that lineman from getting to the second level.

In 2003 under Blache, our defensive line was one of the biggest in the NFL. The defensive tackles were Ted Washington and Keith Traylor, who both played at over 350 pounds. They weren’t very mobile, but they were so big and strong that no offensive lineman were going to move them off the line of scrimmage. Our left defensive end was Phillip Daniels. Daniels was the size of most defensive tackles at well over 300 pounds. The only player we had along the DLine that was smaller was rookie defensive end Alex Brown who was a mere 248 pounds.

When Lovie came in, we traded or released all the linemen that weren’t fits, and that left us with one starter from the previous season, and that was Brown. In the Tampa-2, in order for the scheme to work properly, there has to be a quality 3-technique player. Since we didn’t have one on the roster, we drafted Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson in the first and second rounds respectively, to fill that important need. Over the next few years, we added several players who were good fits within the scheme, including defensive end Adewale Ogunleye and nose tackle/1-tech Anthony Adams.

The linebackers we had from the Blache era were also excellent fits for Lovie’s scheme, with Brain Urlacher being the Mike and Lance Briggs being the all-important Will. The same can be said for the secondary, where we had Peanut Tillman and Jerry Azumah at the corners and Mike Brown at Free safety.

It took the entire 2004 season to get adjusted to that new scheme, but by 2005, we had one of the better defenses in the NFL, and we became a Playoff Team.

I see similarities with Coach Eberflus’ players. Last year he inherited several players that weren’t perfect fits for the scheme. They were able to draft some defensive backs who could play within the scheme, but they really didn’t have the right kind of players to play it effectively.

That has started to change this year, and we are seeing that with the signings in free agency. The first two reported signings were Mike linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and Will linebacker TJ Edwards. Edmunds, from a size/speed and skill set point of view is very similar to Urlacher. It remains to be seen if Tremaine will turn out to even be close to as good as Brian was, but it is a definite step in the right direction.

Edwards’ size/speed and skill set are very similar to what we had in Lance Briggs. Both are very instinctive and physical players who find the ball. Nose tackle/1-Tech Andrew Billings is similar in size and stature to Spice Adams and plays the same physical type of game.

DeMarcus Walker has the traits to play either as a 3-Tech or left end. In Flus’ scheme, he would like a little bigger/sturdier type of player to hold up vs the run at the left end spot. Walker fits that mold, but one of his strong suits is his ability to rush the passer from inside. Because of that, I can see him being used as DE on base downs and inside on passing downs.

Even with those signings, the defensive line is probably the weakest position group on the team. There are only two veteran defensive ends on the roster, and one is second-year man Dominique Robinson, who has the traits to become very good within this scheme but is still raw and learning. Robinson played several different positions in college and was only a defensive end for two seasons, so he is still learning. He should take a big step this year.

The other remaining DE is Trevis Gipson, who was disappointing last year to say the least. In 2021 he had 7.0 sacks and five forced fumbles. It was thought that he would show improvement within this scheme, but instead, he regressed. His sack total dropped to 3.0, and he had no forced fumbles. For the Bears to be successful, it is important that they find at least two more edge players either via free agency in the next few days/weeks or in the Draft.

The same holds true for the 3-Tech position. Justin Jones played the 3T last year, but he isn’t a perfect fit. He is the type of player we can get by with but not the player they want as the number one 3T. Jones may be better off playing the 1-Tech, where he has the size, strength, and power to hold the point. There are no 3-techs left in free agency that can play the position effectively, so that means Ryan Poles and company will have to find that player in the Draft. It won’t be an easy task, but there are some players who look as if they can be quality 3-techs

The first is Jalen Carter from Georgia, who just a few weeks ago looked as if he would be a top player in this Draft. Because of some off-field issues, he could very well still be available when the Bears pick in the 9-slot.

Quality 3-techniques aren’t always defensive tackles in college. Some are defensive ends who have the size and traits required to play the 3T. In 2009 when we drafted Henry Melton, he was a defensive end at Texas. We saw he had the growth potential to play inside. He spent his rookie year as DE, but as he grew and gained quality weight, we moved him inside to the 3T in his second year. The result was he became a Pro Bowl Player.

I see four players in this Draft who are listed as defensive ends but in the Bears’ scheme are more suited to play the 3T. The first is Georgia Tech’s Keion White. Keion is 6’5 – 285 with speed and plays a relentless style of football. Early in the first game I viewed, I felt this player was the perfect three. The same can be said about Northwestern’s Adetomiwa Adebawore, who played mostly on the edge at Northwestern but at 6004 – 283 with 4.49 speed; he may be the best 3T in this class after Carter.

Iowa’s Lukas Van Ness played both inside and outside for the Hawkeyes, but his style of play screams 3T. Like Melton, he will need to bulk up, but if he can get to that 285-290 area, he can be a solid 3-Technique player. The last is USC’s Tuli Tuipolotu. Tuli was mainly a 5-Tech at USC, but he is another who easily has the traits to be a quality 3-Tech. During the season he played at around 285 -290 but dropped close to 20 pounds for the Combine. He will need to put that weight back on. Tuipolotu had 13 sacks last year at USC!

The Bears still have a long way to go to find the right players for this scheme, but as free agency has shown, they are moving in the right direction. The next month should tell us a lot.

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