Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. Three names, three players who can finally give the Chicago Bears a true 3-4 front.
If there’s a happier man in the Windy City than Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, he’s likely a multi-time lottery winner. Fangio has had to wait a year but he finally has the right ingredients to piece together a 3-4 front seven offenses will fear.
Those ingredients were sorely lacking last season, the first year of Chicago’s dalliance with a three-man front scheme. From the line to every area of the linebacker corps, Fangio had to fit square pegs into round holes.
It started with the always destined-to-fail experiment of playing career three-point stancer Jared Allen as a standup outside linebacker. Then there was 3-technique D-tackles Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson trying to hold down the fort as two-gap ends.
The latter problem has been smartly solved by the addition of Hicks. He was one of the true hidden gems of this year’s free-agency class.
Hicks is a hulking behemoth who can both split gaps and control multiple blockers at 6’5″ and 324 pounds. He’s also got underrated chops as a pass-rusher, evidenced by 9.5 career sacks, including recording three with the New England Patriots last season.
The Bears’ official YouTube channel relayed highlights of the former Regina star at his destructive best:
Hicks is a terror up front who can be moved around to overwhelm weak blockers on the edge or shifted inside to isolate a guard.
The cost of acquiring that crackerjack set of formidable skills was a very reasonable one for the Bears, per NFL.com Media Insider Ian Rapoport:
Perhaps the best part of the Hicks’ signing is his partnership with second-year nose tackle Eddie Goldman. The house-sized 0-technique proved a menace along the interior as a rare member of Chicago’s hotchpotch defensive front who actually excelled last season.
With these two in the middle, the Bears have the bulk, aggression and dynamism to transform 2015’s 22nd-ranked run defense in an NFC North where Adrian Peterson and Eddie Lacy still earn their bruises between the tackles.
But as good as the Hicks signing is, the real good news for Fangio is the additions of Trevathan and Freeman. The duo can be the catch-all speed demons at inside linebacker Fangio needs to make his core schemes work.
Freeman’s overall game was underrated with the Indianapolis Colts, but his talent in coverage rarely went unappreciated.
Similarly, Trevathan’s flair for tracking receivers proved invaluable for the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl-seizing defense last season.
While others stole the headlines, Trevathan and fellow middle ‘backer Brandon Marshall were the key players in Wade Phillips’ system. They could line up over wide receivers in the slot, stay with running backs in the flats and lock up tight ends over the middle.
Those skills let Phillips play blanket man coverage whenever he felt like it, coverage that gave his awesome arsenal of pass-rushers extra time to get home.
With Marshall and Trevathan able to sweep up anything that got behind the rush, edge playmakers DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, Shaquil Barrett and Shane Ray were free to concentrate solely on rushing the passer.
It’s similar to how things worked for Fangio when he was running the defense for the San Francisco 49ers. Back then, Fangio’s fearsome units were underpinned by the quickness and versatility of inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
The pair would stay on the field against multiple-receiver sets, with Fangio confident either would stay with wideouts and slot playmakers in space.
While they stuck to a seek-and-destroy remit, outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks made life a misery for quarterbacks.
That’s just how things can work for Fangio’s new-look group in Chicago.
In a division where the Green Bay Packers love to spread the field and the Detroit Lions can have Golden Tate and Ameer Abdullah work the inside, Fangio’s linebacker-led system can be an X factor for the Bears.
Trevathan and Freeman will let Pernell McPhee, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston focus on boosting a pass rush that felt the collars of opposing quarterbacks just 35 times last season.
With Hicks and Goldman absorbing blocks, those edge-rushers will enjoy plenty of free paths to the heart of the pocket. Behind them, Freeman and Trevathan will let Fangio rotate and disguise his coverage without tipping his hand via wholesale changes of personnel.
Now they have this trio of flexible newbies in place, Fangio and head coach John Fox, another astute defensive mind, can finally shape a defense that should be among the NFL’s best in the new season.
Questions may persist about Chicago’s offense, especially sans Matt Forte and Adam Gase, but the Bears can count on counting on Fangio’s D’.