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Building the Matt Eberflus Defense

Looking to the Colts for answers on how the Matt Eberflus defense was built, and how the Bears might look to replicate that success.

Matt Eberflus Bears Defense
Photo: Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

To determine how the Chicago Bears might approach their offseason on the defensive side of the football, I have reviewed the Colts’ last four years of transactions. This includes how they drafted, traded, signed free agents, and allocated cap space to build the Matt Eberflus defense. Any contract less than $1 million in total value was excluded.

Interior Defensive Line

Angelo Blackson Bears
Photo: Jon Durr/USA TODAY Sports

During Eberflus’ tenure as the Colts defensive coordinator, the team brought in seven interior defensive linemen. One re-signed from the previous regime, one via trade, four from free agency, and one through the draft. All free-agent signings were for low dollar amounts.

Interior defenders acquired for theMatt Eberflus Defense

The first and most notable was the DeForest Buckner acquisition. The Colts traded their 2020 first-round pick (No. 13 overall) to the 49ers for Buckner. Upon acquiring Buckner, the Colts handed him a four-year $84 million contract that made him the second-highest-paid DT in the NFL. Although Buckner has played all over the Colts defensive line, his home spot is the 3 technique.

Veteran Bears fans can think back to Tommie Harris and Henry Melton. The 3 tech is a key position for the type of defense Eberflus runs. The 3 techniques penetration through the B gap sets everyone else up in this scheme. I would expect to see the Bears make this position a priority, considering they do not have a strong every-down fit currently rostered. Moreover, some keys for this position are explosiveness, quickness, and pass rush ability. Some free-agent options to fill this hole include Emmanuel Ogbah, BJ Hill, and Isaac Rochell. Although, this is a tough player to find and could be a spot they target in the draft.

Athletic Profile for Matt Eberflus’ interior defenders

Typically, the interior defenders for Eberflus are above-average athletes who lack typical size and strength. The areas lacking the most are weight and bench press reps. Meanwhile, areas of strength are broad jump, shuttle run, and the 40-yard dash. Additionally, Eberflus seems to prefer length on the interior, but it is not a deal-breaker for him either. Four of the seven acquired interior defenders weigh in below 300 lbs.

EDGE / Defensive End

Khalil Mack Bears Defense
Photo: AP Photo/Wade Payne

In Eberflus’ time with the Colts, the team brought in 10 EDGE defenders. One re-signed from the previous regime, three came from free agency, and six entered through the draft.

EDGE defenders acquired for the Matt Eberflus defense

The signing of Justin Houston was a reasonable but above average dollar amount, while the Denico Autry signing was a mid-level contract. Pairing a strong EDGE with a quality 3 technique is important for Eberflus defenses to get home with four-man pressures.

Veteran Bears fans can think back to pairing Adewale Ogunleye with Harris, or Julius Peppers with Melton. The rest of the defensive line rotation was playing free due to the attention those two players drew. This position should not be an issue for the Bears. Both Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn can play with their hand in the dirt. Although, the presence of two EDGE rushers and no clear answer at the 3 technique could make a trade appealing. It will be interesting to see how Eberflus and Poles approach roster construction here. But one thing is clear; Khalil Mack is the prototype for the EDGE position and will fit into this defense just fine.

Athletic Profile for Matt Eberflus’ EDGE defenders

On average, the EDGE defenders for Eberflus are elite athletes who lack in weight and strength. Weight and strength are the only areas that the group was below average. Meanwhile, areas of strength are vertical jump, broad jump, shuttle run, and the 40-yard dash. Three of the 10 acquired EDGE defenders weigh in above 265 lbs.

Off-Ball Linebacker

Roquan Smith Bears
Photo: Nam Y. Huh/AP

Under Matt Eberflus, the Colts defense brought in eight off-ball linebackers — two from free agency and six through the draft.

Off-Ball linebackers acquired for the Matt Eberflus defense

Both free-agent signings were low-risk, high-reward additions, with no guaranteed dollars. Eberflus appears to have a preference to draft his ideal fit at the linebacker spot.

Veteran Bears fans can think back to pairing Brian Urlacher with Lance Briggs. The Mike (Urlacher) needs good speed as well as strong recognition abilities. He needs to read plays and recognize whether he should maintain short coverage with other linebackers, drop behind them into a deeper zone, or approach the LOS against the run. Meanwhile, the Will (Briggs) also needs plus speed and solid recognition abilities, but also must be a very skilled and instinctive tackler. The key theme in stopping the run is by directing traffic to the Will. Therefore, the Will must be able to react instinctively and take opportunities as quickly as they arise. In 2021, the Sam LB only played 18% of the defensive snaps for the Colts.

Roquan Smith could be a strong fit at either of these spots. While he does fit in the Mike role, he could be most productive in the Will role. I am curious to see what Eberflus decides to do with Roquan. Some potential free-agent options could include Kyzir White, Foyesade Oluokun, and Leighton Vander Esch.

Athletic Profile for Matt Eberflus’ linebackers

On average, the linebackers for Eberflus are plus athletes who might be undersized but don’t lack for strength. While he prefers linebackers with plus length, it is not a deal-breaker for him. Three of the eight linebackers acquired had above average length. The linebacker group’s height, weight, and agility are all below average. Meanwhile, areas of strength are bench press, broad jump, vertical jump, and the 40-yard dash. Seven of the eight acquired linebackers weigh in below 240 lbs.

Cornerback

Jaylon Johnson Bears Defense
Photo: Paul Sancya/AP

In Eberflus’ time with the Colts, the team brought in six cornerbacks. Two were re-signed from the previous regime, two joined from free agency, and two entered through the draft.

Cornerbacks acquired for the Matt Eberflus defense

Both free-agent signings were low-risk, high-reward additions, with minimal guaranteed dollars. That includes the Xavier Rhodes signing, which represents Eberflus signing an aging veteran to a low dollar amount and getting the most out of him. Additionally, one of the re-signed players was to a larger multi-year deal (Kenny Moore II).

Jaylon Johnson should be a solid fit. In this scheme, the cornerbacks are asked to jam receivers at the LOS and force them inside toward the linebackers. Johnson has shown a strong ability to play press coverage and to get receivers off their spots. Although, he will need to clean up his run tackling. He has shown an ability to play the run game off the EDGE but had momentary lapses in 2021.

Thomas Graham is more of a mystery here, as his press abilities are relatively unknown. While he is a ready and willing run defender, his lack of top-end speed could be a concern. Some potential free-agent options could include Darious Williams, Charvarious Ward, and Isaiah Oliver.

Athletic Profile for Matt Eberflus’ cornerbacks

On average, the cornerbacks for Eberflus are plus athletes who might lack in change of direction. There is a strong preference for corners with length and leaping ability. Five of the six cornerbacks acquired had above-average length and vertical jumps. The only area that is below average for the group was change of direction (shuttle run). Meanwhile, areas of strength are vertical jump, broad jump, and bench press. Eberflus likes them strong and explosive, with good length and straight-line speed.

Safety

Eddie Jackson Bears
Photo: ChicagoBears.com

During Eberflus’ tenure as the Colts defensive coordinator, the team brought in nine safeties. One was re-signed from the previous regime, four came from free agency, and four were selected in the draft.

Safeties acquired for the Matt Eberflus defense

All free agent signings were low-risk, high-reward additions, with minimal guaranteed dollars. Ultimately, the Colts built their starting safety duo through the draft with Julian Blackmon and Khari Willis. Both players were picked in the third round or later.

Eddie Jackson should fit right in to the scheme change. In this scheme, the safeties must recognize run or pass right away. If the play is a run, they must fill their run lanes diligently. Because the cornerbacks are asked to push the receivers inside toward the linebackers, the coverage stress is taken off the safeties. They are asked to range the width of the field and allowed to play as instinctive ball hawks if they can keep the play in front of them.

This suits Jackson well in the coverage aspect, but he will surely need to clean up some of his tackling issues against the run. Although, the arrow is pointing up after 2021, when Jackson had his best year as a run defender. Some potential free-agent options could include Justin Reid and Quandre Diggs.

Athletic Profile for Matt Eberflus’ safeties

On average, the safeties for Eberflus are plus athletes who lack in size but not strength. There is a strong preference for safeties with plus bench press reps. Seven safeties acquired had bench press testing recorded. Six of them had above-average bench press reps. In addition, six of the eight safeties acquired with testing numbers available had an above-average vertical jump. The only areas that were below average for the group were height and weight. Meanwhile, areas of strength are vertical jump, broad jump, bench press, and agility. Eberflus likes them strong and explosive, with change of direction ability.

The Matt Eberflus Defense

Athletic Profile for Matt Eberflus’ defense

Overall, the Matt Eberflus defense is going to be explosive, fast, and agile. They are middling in strength, with above-average strength in the back end but below-average strength in the front four. The one trait that consistently exceeds the average across all position groups is explosiveness (vertical jump and broad jump). Other traits that stand out across all position groups are speed and agility, with a general preference for length. Eberflus does not seem to put significant value on size and weight in any position group.

Among the 40 players acquired for his defense in Indianapolis over the last four years, 19 of them were drafted (48%). That is an average of 4.75 defensive players per draft class. Although, that only includes one first-round pick.

Depth Chart for Matt Eberflus’ 2021 Defense

Eberflus built the 2021 Colts defense primarily through second- and third-round picks. This could tell us the Chicago Bears’ intentions in the 2022 NFL Draft. I am anticipating a few trade-downs to add draft picks in the third round and later.

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I like spreadsheets and football. I aim to take an analytical approach to my football research while also realizing the physical nature of football and how that impacts the numbers. While my main focus is Chicago Bears, I also write about the NFL as a whole.

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