Matt Eberflus’ need for defensive ‘engine’ might hint at Bears’ offseason plan

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Matt Eberflus arrived in Chicago as a heralded defensive coordinator who led some of the NFL’s best units while with the Indianapolis Colts. Eberflus’ scheme requires three components to work at optimum capacity: a disruptive three-technique, a ball-productive WILL linebacker, and a do-it-all nickel corner.

Eberflus’ first Bears roster lacked those critical pieces. The hope was that Roquan Smith would thrive as the WILL linebacker as Shaquille Leonard did in Indianapolis. The ball production never came from Smith, and contentious contract negotiations led to the Bears sending the star linebacker to Baltimore midseason.

The Bears drafted Kyler Gordon in the second round to serve as their Kenny Moore. Gordon got off to an expected rocky start, but a positive mindset and simple mantra have helped him grow into a solid young NFL corner.

But the three-technique lights the fire for Eberflus’ defensive scheme.

“We call it the engine that makes everything go because in the running game, you can’t run at the three and you can’t run away from him, so it’s hard to really dictate where you’re going to run the ball, number one, and it creates a lot of free lanes for your linebackers to run through in the run game,” Eberflus explained Tuesday at Halas Hall.

“But in the pass game, a lot of times when you have two of them, you have a three-technique and you have a defensive end opposite of him, it’s hard to move your line that way. He creates a lot of one- on-ones, and he’s typically overmatched on a guard. Typically your best offensive linemen are on the outside and if you have your best player on the inside, that’s certainly an advantage for you.”

The Bears targeted free agent Larry Ogunjobi to be that man in the offseason, but a failed physical nuked that idea. The Bears signed Justin Jones as Plan B, but the production Eberflus needs out of that position has not been there this season.

Per Pro Football Focus, Jones ranks 43rd among interior defensive linemen in pressures (20), 44th in sacks (2), and 22nd in stops (22).

Those numbers highlight a key reason why the Bears’ defense ranks among the worst in the NFL in several key categories. The Bears are 32nd in Expected Points Added allowed per dropback and 27th in rush EPA allowed.

That’s because whoever the Bears have slotted in at three-technique has failed to disrupt from the interior consistently. That has allowed teams to dictate how they want to attack the Bears’ defense. In addition, the lack of a pass rush, both from Jones and anyone on the edge, has forced Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams to blitz more to try and affect the quarterback.

Eberflus also notes that a stud three-technique can make a good WILL linebacker better, and that can be the catalyst for a top-level defense in this scheme.

“Yeah, if you do it like we do it,” Eberflus said. “The old-school Tampa Bay, Chicago Bears, they would put Lance Briggs, Derrick Brooks behind the three-technique. They would always travel together. That means you’re covered to the hit. It would create a lot of things with that Last place I was with DeForest [Buckner] and Shaq [Leonard], he was always covered to the hit. Those two positions are really important to us.”

This brings us to the upcoming offseason in which the Bears are slated to have over $110 million in salary cap space and a top-four pick.

A lot has been made about how the Bears will revamp the roster around quarterback Justin Fields and what area they will prioritize in free agency and the draft.

Eberflus’ defense simply can’t operate at peak efficiency without a consistently disruptive three-technique.

There’s a good chance that position will be high on the Bears’ offseason wishlist with enticing options in the draft, free agency, and potentially via trade available.

Let’s start in free agency, where Washington Commanders defensive tackle Daron Payne is set to hit free agency. Payne is having a career season in a contract year for Washington. He’s an elite run-stopper and has worked tirelessly to improve his pass-rush skills.

This season, Payne ranks 13th in pressures (37), fifth in sacks (9), and fifth in stops (35). He’s also 25 years old and about to enter the prime of his career. People around the NFL expect the Commanders to try and keep Payne, but the Bears have the money to pry him away from the nation’s capital.

The second option comes in the draft, where the Bears will likely have the opportunity to select Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter. Carter, 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, is an unblockable force on the interior. As a true sophomore, he was arguably the best player on Georgia’s national championship defense last season. In 396 snaps last season, Carter registered 34 pressures (four sacks, six hits) and 21 stops. He ranked 14th nationally in pressures, but all 13 players above him played at least 520 snaps.

Carter registered 25 pressures (three sacks, five hits) this season and 20 stops in 308 snaps. Of the 19 interior defensive linemen with more pressure than Carter this season, only two played less than 400 snaps.

The third and least likely option is that the Indianapolis Colts hit the rebuild button and part ways with Buckner, who knows Eberflus’ system and is still in his prime at 28. This season, Buckner ranks 10th in pressures (41), ninth in sacks (7), and third in stops (36). Colts owner Jim Irsay isn’t a “blow it up and rebuild” guy, but the situation in Indianapolis is worthy of monitoring.

RELATED: How Fields blocked out criticism to become Bears future

In less than 90 seconds Tuesday, Eberflus illustrated why the three-technique is the most critical part of the defense he runs and will likely be at the top of the Bears’ priority list this offseason. If that falls into place, the Bears can focus on a WILL linebacker to pair with the three-technique, and the defense will look worlds different than the unit opponents have eviscerated this season.

The Bears’ roster has a lot of holes to fill. General manager Ryan Poles has the money and draft capital at his disposal to reshape it how he and Eberflus see fit.

That’s got to start with the defensive line and finding a dominant three-technique.

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