The Chicago Bears’ already bad defense was supposed to be blown out in Atlanta without their starting linebackers, including defensive leader Lance Briggs, but they ended up with their best defensive performance of the season. The kind of performance that makes the thought of losing Briggs after the season not as scary as it once was.
When the Bears lost Briggs in 2013, their defense simply stopped putting up a fight. The linebackers they had spent early draft picks on — Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene — were lost and opposing defenses had no trouble picking on them.
Last Sunday was different. Instead of sinking, the young Bears linebackers swam. While too much is being made of their performance in the short term, the Bears have reason to believe they can survive after Briggs likely departure following 2014.
Briggs contract is up after this season and there has really been no indication that the Bears are going to try to keep him or that he even wants to stay. He’s been adequate in 2014, a far cry from who he once was, but not a liability like Brian Urlacher had become in his last year with the Bears.
When Greene replaced him against Atlanta, the Bears didn’t miss him. If anything, the extra speed Greene brought to the team was a benefit against a fast Falcons team in a dome. As spread offenses continue to take over the league, Briggs’ lack of speed is starting to become a major problem for the Bears.
It isn’t just a lack of speed that is hurting the Bears defense when it comes to Briggs. He seems to get lost in zone coverage and far too often free-lances, leading to big plays for the opposition. He also isn’t a threat as a blitzer.
Briggs can still play. He’s been very good at plugging holes in the run and, while he’s never been a sure tackler, his presence often times helps others make plays. He has become a two-down player that the Bears are playing on three. It isn’t his fault, it’s the natural regression of a soon-to-be 34-year-old linebacker.
There is also some thought about how much Briggs trusts what the coaches are doing. It’s no secret he remains good friends with Urlacher, who has made his distaste for the Bears organization well known.
Briggs is a leader of the Bears defense and certainly has the respect of those around him. The Bears can’t bench him and shouldn’t. Trading him for a draft pick is probably the smartest football move, but they’d risk mutiny in the lockerroom.
The performance of the Bears young linebackers on Sunday is perhaps being blown out of proportion. They didn’t embarrass themselves, but the Bears coaching staff did a nice job of putting them in position not fail and, without a great tight end or creative running game, Atlanta isn’t the kind of opponent that requires great linebacker play.
Darryl Sharpton (aka The Rev) should most definitely get the opportunity to keep playing the middle and calling the defense. Neither Christian Jones nor Greene really stood out, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; they did what was asked of them.
The thought that Briggs is ultimately replaceable goes beyond one game. Two of Phil Emery’s highest draft picks, Bostic and Shea McClellin, also played very well early in this season.
Bostic has shown speed and power and, while he’s still raw, has enough potential to try and develop. The same can be said about McClellin, although he just can’t seem to stay healthy.
Bostic isn’t a middle linebacker and if McClellin is able to stay on the field on the strong side, the natural thought is that Bostic will eventually replace Briggs. Of course, Greene will also have the opportunity to compete, but his standing on the depth chart the last two years shows what the coaching staff thinks about him.
It’s also very likely that the Bears add young talent to the position to create more competition. The point is that the Bears have shown the ability to develop linebackers and help them succeed.
When the Bears let Urlacher and Devin Hester go, they didn’t have plans to replace them and it has hurt their defense and special teams. With Briggs, however, we have signs that there won’t be a huge gap. Great players come and go, great franchises find ways to replace them.
This story also appears on cover32.com