Chicago Sun-Times

Strong-side inspection: A look at Roach vs. Hillenmeyer battle

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If the Bears wind up signing free-agent linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, who will visit Halas Hall today, there is little doubt he will be installed as the starter at strong-side linebacker.

That's figured to be one of the few positions where the organization is going to have wide-open competition for a job come training camp. Nick Roach was promoted over veteran Hunter Hillenmeyer during the middle of last season and that alone probably gives him a leg up on the job right now.

But Tinoisamoa has long been someone Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Bob Babich have admired. Babich was a rookie position coach in the NFL when Tinoisamoa led the St. Louis Rams in tackles as a rookie second-round pick in 2003. After arriving from St. Louis, Smith and Babich both spoke highly of the player on a regular basis. Now there is an opportunity for a reunion, although Buffalo and Philadelphia are also pursuing the player.

Let's take a closer look at Roach and Hillenmeyer and how their competition sizes up right now because it's unknown if the Bears are prepared to offer Tinoisamoa a contract. Remember, they moved fast when tight end Michael Gaines came for a free-agent visit last week. Tinoisamoa will be in an upbeat atmosphere as the first OTA practice is scheduled to start at 11 a.m. He will be able to watch at practice like the rest of us where fifth-round pick Marcus Freeman and veteran Jamar Williams fit into the scheme. There are some questions to be answered at linebacker.

2008 playing time breakdown

Hunter Hillenmeyer--269 of 1,111 snaps, 24.2 percent

23 tackles, 10 solos, 1 sack, 2 pass defended

Nick Roach--431 of 1,111 snaps, 38.8 percent

40 tackles, 25 solos, 2 tackles for loss, 1 QB hit, 1 pass defended

The sample size is not the best to evaluate, and Hillenmeyer was dealing with injuries last season, but the numbers suggest Roach has the ability to make more plays on his own. While Roach made a tackle every 10.8 plays, Hillenmeyer had one every 11.7 plays. There's a broader difference when you look at solo tackles. Roach had 2.5 times as many with a solo every 17 plays. Hillenmeyer made one every 27 plays. Roach has better range and that could explain why. But don't forget the team called Hillenmeyer, who turns 29 this season, it's most "assignment sound" defender not long ago.

What the numbers also show is that the Bears were in their base defense roughly 63 percent of the time. The strong-side linebacker comes off the field in the nickel package. That would be an adjustment Tinoisamoa would likely have to get used to if he joins the team. He was a three-down linebacker during six seasons with the Rams.

Check back later on this morning as we provide updates from the OTA here as well as on our Twitter account at cst_bears. Get your questions in for Four Down Territory also. We'll have the Q&A on Thursday.

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Jamar Williams is the wild card in this entire thing. If Freeman is going to be the understudy to Lance Briggs, then Williams is the best other linebacker on the roster. He has better size than Tinoisamoa, better range than Hillenmeyer, and seems like he has more smarts than Roach. I still think Williams is our 3rd linebacker. We should be able to adjust the defense enough to get our 3 best guys on the field. Besides, it's not like we are in a base 4-3 all the time...based on Biggs' numbers, we are in 2 LB sets around 37% of the time, so the SLB is a two down player. This team has wasted talent in all sorts of ways, and leaving Jamar Williams on the bench is one more. If the guy can't play, then he shouldn't be on the team. Roach is a better special teamer than a starter for us, and Hillenmeyer, while probably the most sound defender we have, is a liability in coverage, especially now with the athletic tight ends in the division (Shiancoe, Pettigrew, Donald Lee and Jermichael Finley in GB), not to mention that we play Heath Miller, Tony Gonzalez, John Carlson, Vernon Davis, and Todd Heap this year. To me, that means that your best 3 LBs need to be on the field as much as possible, which in my opinion is Urlacher, Briggs, and Williams. Briggs was a strong side backer coming in to the league, and we could interchange Williams and Briggs depending on the formation, and move them all around so that teams don't know what is coming. The 3-4 defense is based on disguising the rush....Why can't we do the same thing by shifting and moving the linebackers? We do it in the mug-up front, so why not flip sides, and create more chaos?

Is Tinoisamoa going to want to go to a team where he only plays 2 downs? Philly and Buffalo would make him the weakside backer because of his size in their defense, so he would likely stay in on passing downs. But he isn't going to jump ahead of Urlacher and Briggs on this team. He is a part time player, and special teamer here. But then again, we miss Ayanbadejo a lot....

If veteran Pisa Tinoisamoa isn't signed, Nick Roach will probably end up as the Bears starting strongside linebacker. Roach simply makes more plays than the "assignment sound" Hillenmeyer. I also give Roach the edge for the simple fact he made more solo tackles, Roach 1 every 17 plays vs Hillenmeyer 1 every 27 plays. The fact the strongside backer is basically only a 2 down player [ more of a run stopper], and the fact Roach can make more solo stops, I'd go with Roach.

I like Jamar Williams, but for whatever reason, I have never really heard his name thrown around while talking about possible starters at the strongside position. I thought for sure last season when the Bears resigned Lance Briggs, Williams would shift over and compete with Hillenmeyer for the strongside job. But instead, you never really heard much from Williams, and Roach ended up being the guy to step up and upseat Hillenmeyer. A lot goes on behind closed doors in practice that us as fans never see. Obviously Roach must have impressed more than Jamar Williams during practice and the private workouts. Also, the fact Roach was given a one year deal at the very least shows the Bears want to see if he is gonna take another step in his development.

In the end its gonna end up being Tinoisamoa if he signs, or probably Roach if the Bears go into camp with their current personnel, we'll see GO BEARS!!

Is it possible that Roach has more tackles because the man he was defending was able to catch a pass? That would seem to be a way for the Bears coaches to call Hillenmeyer "assignment sound" without being contradicted by these stats.

It's also possible that he funneled running backs back inside by taking his assigned area in run defense.

I'm just playing devil's advocate here. Hunter has become pretty unpopular, and is garnering lots of attention that believe should be directed at the FS position.

I'm happy to see the Bears still shopping around for incremental upgrades with our leftover $20 mil. We've gotten lots of value this offseason and any further additions (beyond just throwing this money at Cutler) would be icing on the cake.

I agree Chris, I am happy the Bears are looking to upgrade this position and Philly has always (lately) been known to have decent D players so for them to be looking at Pisa gives him credibility.
Gut feeling is with Pisa knowing our D staff, we have a good shot at signing him.
Go here for his stats
not to shabby

joe, how exactly are you making all of these determinations about jamar williams? the guy has barely played on defense. fact check he's not bigger than tinoisamoa, he's both shorter and lighter. how do you know he has more smarts than roach? roach went to northwestern. you seem to be creating a very mike hass like situation here, talking up a guy who has yet to make an impact at his primary position while being on/around the team for multiple seasons.

jamar williams has proven one thing so far in his nfl career, he's a very solid special teams player. nothing beyond that.

hunter has become an enormous liability in coverage. just re-watch the game vs. tampa bay last year and watch jerramy stevens own hunter all game long. roach is more athletic than hunter, but both of them leave something to be desired at the SAM backer spot.

if the bears sign tinoisamoa, he's instantly the 3rd best LB on this team without question.

assuming pisa is signed, the bears kept 6 LB's last year on the roster, if they repeat that in '09 that would leave freeman / roach / hunter battling out the 5th and 6th spots.

Brad, I always love your reporting, but I think your numbers in this case only tell part of the story. For a fair comparison of stats, you'd also have to go back an additional year to see what Hillenmeyer did when he was healthy. While I don't know how that would shake out, I seem to remember Hillenmyer coming up huge on a regular basis in 2007 and would be interested to see how his 2007 numbers compared.

All I know is that I keep reading that the Bears linebacking crew is not one of its areas of weaknesses or areas of need, but I’ve always felt that outside of Briggs, the defense has been lacking big plays from the linebackers in the last couple of seasons, especially with the mysteries surrounding Urlacher of whether he is slowing down, still hurt, still unfocused from his off-the-field issues or whether he still can’t figure out how to shed a block. I’m sorry, but I’ve never been all that impressed with Nick Roach or Hunter Hillenmeyer at their respective linebacking slots. I understand Hillenmeyer was supposedly battling injuries last season, but even before the injuries, I wasn’t a huge fan despite the consistent tackling numbers back then. I know Tinoisamoa is a better player and more talented than either Roach or Hillenmeyer and he’s only 28 years old. Plus, he knows Lovie and Babich so he should be familiar with the defensive schemes. Just the fact that he’s being courted by the Eagles and Patriots also shows that he’s no fluke and was basically a salary casualty at St. Louis. To me, this is a no-brainer. I’m certainly not going to lose any sleep over either Roach, Hillenmeyer or Jamar Williams if Tinoisamoa is signed (although a “healthy” Hillenmeyer is the preferred choice among the current 3 to keep). Look, I’m not going to try to dissect the numbers between these guys to prove a point, but I just know that the last 2 seasons, our Bears Defense went from being ranked #2 overall to basically below half the last 2 years, and I’ve seen the “D” give up way too many big plays that I’ve never been accustomed to from a what is supposed to be a traditionally solid defensive team year in and year out. Not that this is the only solution by any means, but we need an upgrade at the strong-side LB slot. Tinoisamoa is an upgrade over any of those 3 guys we currently have, I don’t care what the numbers say. As much as I love the Jay Cutler signing like almost everyone, I still enjoy watching the defensive side of the ball more and the last 2 seasons have been unBEAR-able! Hopefully the Freeman kid will show some flashes in Training Camp, but we’ll have to wait and see if he’s the sleeper pick that some people make him out to be…

Chris, as for the Free Safety position, the Bears already have a ton of players competing for that starting position. I know, no one with Pro Bowl-caliber talent, but they have a lot of guys who will compete in training camp. It’s too late in the game to address that now because there is really no one out there in free agency this offseason anymore, so we’ll just have to see what we got with the signees and draft picks for now and hope someone will step up and earn that starting outright.

I agree with some of Dan's points on this issue as well, it became apparant last season that teams were attacking the strongside LB in passing situations all year, another poster tried to place some of the blame on the free safety, which is another area of weakness, but if you remember the Berrian 99 yd TD last season, Tillman came off his guy because the LB (Hunter) got beat clean off the snap and the TE was wide open, due to the fact they were passing from the goal line with the BEARS pass rush selling out, Tillman took the short man, Ferrotte saw this and was able to get the ball to Berrian before the rush got there, this play essentially took us out of playoff contention last season. I also think we need a SSLB who can rush the passer, we used both Brian and Briggs to blitz, but that takes our best tacklers out of position to make plays on the ball, the SSLB should be blitzing and getting in the face of the QB, this would also help our pash rush, the strong safety could cover the TE in this instance and leave us in a sound defensive position if the pass rush does not get there to eliminate some of those long drag and or seem patterns we gave up a lot last season......Go BEARS........

When signing Lance Briggs was an uncertainty, Jamar Williams was pegged as his replacement, and even got some time on the field when Lance was dinged up. To play the weak side, you need to be able to read and react very quickly (Briggs' greatest asset), and Williams was considered to be a drop-in replacement if Briggs left in free agency. He was also Urlacher's primary backup if I remember the depth chart correctly. That's a smart player, and one they were not willing to risk as a strong side backer in case someone else was injured. A strongside backer only reads the tight end, and plays downhill from there. Roach is not considered a viable backup at either of the other LB positions, which tells me he is not as adept at reading and reacting as Williams is. Smart was perhaps the wrong word, but I think the position they play is representative of what they can do. My assumption is that Tinoisamoa is not on the roster, and we are likely third choice in his mind because of where we would play him. And as far as size, 237 is bigger than the 225 Tinoisamoa played at last year.

Williams is unproven, as are Roach, Freeman, and LaRocque beyond special teams. Hillenmeyer is proven, but limited. But if I had to pick someone from the roster to play strong side, Williams would be my choice. If Freeman is as capable as they seem to think he is, then you have a backup to Briggs.

The reason we as fans have so many Mike Hass situations is that our coaching staff never seems to bring anyone along on the roster. Our bottom third is always our bottom 1/3 of the roster, and we never know whether or not they are capable. If you look at Indy and Tampa, two spots that were the hallmarks of the Cover 2, they were consistently turning over the roster on defense, replacing free agents with players they developed behind them. We don't do that. We bring in fresh faces to replace departed or underperforming players. Is it because all of the depth chart guys are no good, or is it because we do not prepare backups to be future starters and contributors? We have a very good special teams unit, but is it at the expense of depth on offense and defense? I believe (maybe foolishly) that we draft players for a reason, and that reason is to make our team better. That means that we expect them to contribute somewhere down the line, so I say you give them a chance. You want your 3 best LBs on the field, especially in a chase and tackle system like the Cover 2. Hillenmeyer is a liability in coverage, and Roach did not fare a whole lot better in covering the TE if you watch the games. So I say you choose Option C, which is Williams, or Option D, none of the above. If it doesn't work, then you know what you have, and you can turn over the bottom portion of your roster a little bit more. If it does, then you have a player who can help your team win.

Signing Pisa is a mistake. He'd only play 2 downs. You have capable players already on your team. I actually like our linebackers and see no need to upgrade through free agency unless Lawrence Taylor comes out of retirement.

talent is talent and if you have a chance to upgrade you talent, do it. MAYBE the bears can get away with playing more base coverage if you have a tinoisamoa on your team. he is a good sure tackler, and is fast and quick and as an above poster put it, could blitz from the strong side. Heck, i have a suggestion, on occasion, put Mark Anderson on that strong side, line him up right behind Ogunleye and let him attack. he's got the speed to do it, on occasion, line him there and drop him back as a decoy, or line him up, and drop back ogunleye as a zone blitz. kinda like a defensive wildcat, you don't do it all the time, but as a shake up, why not?

I do not feel we have capable LB's at all, look at our play last couple years Briggs shone last year and that was it. Url? Big question mark as well, sign Pisa! Lets move on as these guys have had a chance and did not much with it.

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This page contains a single entry by Brad Biggs published on May 20, 2009 6:03 AM.

UPDATED: Strong-side competition? Pisa Tinoisamoa to visit Bears Wednesday was the previous entry in this blog.

Safety patrol: Corey Graham's move to free safety has begun is the next entry in this blog.

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