By Chris Emma–
(CBS) The identity to Vic Fangio’s budding defense starts at the position of outside linebacker, where the Bears may have their most talented unit entering this 2017 season.
With two weeks until the Bears open training camp in Bourbonnais, it seems the talented depth at outside linebacker will create a formidable pass rush, one with dynamic versatility that will be expected to generate a steady pressure of the quarterback and force issues for opposing offenses.
It starts with Pernell McPhee, who anticipates a great year now that he’s healthy and lighter on his feet. There’s Leonard Floyd, coming off a rookie season in which he had seven sacks in 12 games. Then there’s depth in the form of Willie Young, Lamarr Houston and Sam Acho.
The leader of the bunch, McPhee certainly is optimistic.
“Dominate,” McPhee said of his group. “Destroy every opponent that we face. Just showing the world why they actually got these guys in the room. Me, Leonard, Willie, Lamarr, Sam. Just dominate in the NFL. That’s my focus. That’s what I want us to do, and that’s what I think we’re going to do.”
After two incomplete seasons in Chicago, McPhee finally believes he’s fully recovered from a knee ailment that has hampered him. He played through knee issues in 2015, and then a procedure last offseason forced him to the physically-unable-to-perform list in 2016. McPhee had four sacks in just nine games last season.
The tandem of McPhee and Floyd poses great potential for the Bears and should often be utilized by Fangio. McPhee has a powerful rush that can be difficult for blockers to contain. Floyd, who has noticeably bulked up this offseason, is best as a speed threat off the edge.
Young has been an important piece to the puzzle because of his consistency and availability. He has missed just two games in his three seasons with the Bears. Signed as a defensive end in 2014, he made the successful switch to 3-4 linebacker. Similar reliability has come from Acho, who has played a role at linebacker and on special teams.
Houston has been in a different position, spending two of the last three seasons recovering from a torn ACL. He was injured during the second game of the 2016 campaign. The year before, Houston recorded a career-high eight sacks during his first season at outside linebacker.
During the offseason program, Houston worked in a limited fashion but said he was right on schedule in his rehab.
“I feel refreshed,” he said. “I’m very excited about the upcoming season. I’m looking to make an impact and get this thing rolling in the right direction.”
At each stop in his coaching career, Fangio has looked to his outside linebackers as anchors for his schemes. He relies upon a stable of versatility to create disruption in the backfield and foster opportunities to change the game.
But the Bears have been lacking in the takeaway department the last two seasons. In 2016, the defense ranked dead last in forcing turnovers, with just eight interceptions and three fumbles recovered.
The Bears’ bolstered line and improved secondary will surely help, but this defense needs its outside linebackers to lead the way.
“It’s going to be imperative that we try to maximize and take advantage of every opportunity that we have to create takeaways,” Young said. “Takeaways don’t just come by playing the game. It takes a legit effort to get that done. So, that’ll be one of our biggest goals of 2017.”