Missing: The Bears' pass rush.
If found, please bring to the Weber Center on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University by midnight July 30, you know, so the defense can have its identity back in time for training camp.
The disappearance of the Bears' pass rush, particularly from its front four, was an issue that could not be solved last season when the team registered 28 sacks, the lowest total in five seasons under Lovie Smith. Since expanding to the 16-game schedule in 1978, the Bears have had less than 28 sacks just once, in 2003.
The lack of a pass rush has been conveniently placed at the feet of defensive tackle Tommie Harris by some and that's entirely unfair. No, Harris didn't make it to the Pro Bowl last season but to finger him as the reason for the rush being stuck in rush hour wouldn't be accurate.
Football Outsiders provides an interesting graphic in their Football Outsiders Almanac, and on the surface at least it places the blame elsewhere. Consider this information from Football Outsiders on the distribution of sacks for the Bears over the last three seasons:
Year Pass Attempts DE sacks DT sacks LB/DB sacks Total QB hits per pass
2006 581 25.5 10.5 4 40 14.8 percent
2007 541 18.5 9.5 12 40 13.6 percent
2008 622 12 10.5 4.5 28* 12.4 percent
* On their official statistics the Bears had one sack awarded to "group."
Harris made five sacks last season, tying him for second on the defense, one behind Alex Brown. Harris made a career-high eight sacks in 2007 and had five in 2006. His sack totals--and the numbers produced by the defensive tackles--have remained consistent over the three-year period.
The difference between 28 sacks in 2008 and 40 sacks in 2006? How about Mark Anderson? The defensive end made one sack last season. He had 12 in 2006. Those 11 missing sacks would have given the Bears 39 last season.
"Besides the presence of Mark Anderson at the bottom?'' Football Outsiders managing editor Bill Barnwell said when asked what struck him in his evaluation of the Bears' defensive line. "That jumps out to me. Otherwise, probably Alex Brown's pass-rushing numbers. Not just the sacks, but we also track hits and hurries."
In statistics detailed in Football Outsiders Almanac, Brown was credited with 11 hits and 11 hurries. Combined with six sacks, that means he affected the quarterback 28 times, three more than the next closest Bear, Adewale Ogunleye (5 sacks, 4 hits, 16 hurries). Brown's 11 hits tied for 17th in the league. Anderson had one sack, four hits and six hurries. Harris had five hits and seven hurries.
"I wasn't expecting Alex to have the six sacks and then all of those hits on top of that for someone who isn't known necessarily as being a great pass rusher,'' Barnwell said. "We've found that high hit numbers can be a good indicator of future sack totals. He might have a better year."
Perhaps that means Brown, at 30, could be in line for the first double-digit sack season of his career. No matter what he does, though, the Bears have to get more from Anderson, who has struggled badly since being promoted over Brown into the starting lineup in 2007.
"They expanded his role and Anderson didn't really go anywhere,'' Barnwell said
That's putting it nicely but the Bears are not writing him off as he heads into the final year of his contract. New line coach Rod Marinelli has a lot on his plate and he has talented players to work with. The Bears need the rush from their line because they really don't have a skilled blitzer at linebacker or defensive back. It's hard to find pass rushers from those levels and the Bears certainly brought defenders from all angles last season without a lot of success, certainly not in terms of sacks. Lance Briggs was credited with 1/2 sack, 1 hit and eight hurries. Brian Urlacher had no sacks, three hits and seven hurries.
The more you look at it, the more apparent it is that it's not a simple fix and it's not just Anderson's responsibility to revive the pass rush. It leads you back inside.
"One of the things I was worried about when I looked at why the sack totals were down was Harris didn't command as many double teams last year,'' Barnwell said. "I really believe that when teams were looking at the Bears, they weren't as worried about doubling him because they weren't as worried about him getting to the quarterback. He's had really good pass rush numbers in previous years, not just high sack totals but way more hits and way more hurries. Last year, he only had five hits. He really wasn't getting to the quarterback as frequently. When he's not attracting a double it's harder for everyone else. He really makes that defense run. That really affected their pass rush.''
Marinelli has some fresh talent to work with in rookies Jarron Gilbert and Henry Melton. Israel Idonije could be relied on more in a pass-rushing role down about 30 pounds to 270 this season. Idonije, playing primarily inside, had 3 1/2 sacks, five hits and three hurries in 2007. He did that in 475 snaps, which was 148 less than Harris had. It's unknown where he fits in this season. Idonije played plenty at tackle during the offseason program. With his two-year contract extension one thing is for sure, he's in the mix.
What we've found is that there isn't an easy explanation for last season or an easy fix for this season. The Bears have kept the same personnel, kept the same scheme and swapped out a position coach. There isn't a bigger problem for the defense to have than a lack of a pass rush. It makes the defense better at all levels. Watching the line drills during training camp should be interesting.