CHICAGO -- A year ago, Mel Tucker came in as the Bears' defensive coordinator and learned the terminology for the existing scheme.
This time around, Tucker is leading a revamped staff with significant scheme changes, an overhauled playbook and some new verbiage for a roster general manager Phil Emery has given an extensive makeover.
Tucker visited with the Chicago Tribune to discuss the changes.
When you met with coach Marc Trestman and GM Phil Emery in January, what did you present as your vision?
"I told them the principles that were important to me. I told them our foundation needs to be technique and fundamentals. I wanted a defense that was smart, fast and physical.
"We wanted to be big and strong and we needed to make sure we could win one-on-one matchups. I wanted to be strong down the middle like in baseball with a pitcher, catcher, shortstop, second baseman and center fielder, starting with the D-line, first and foremost at the nose and the three technique.
"And then make sure we could get a pass rush with four, because I don't think you can be a great defense in a 4-3 if you can't get pressure with four guys. I wanted to make sure we had the ability to match up on the perimeter in the passing game and play tight man coverage when we need to, in situations where we need to get off the field or keep the offense behind the chains.
"I said I wanted to have guys with a certain mentality of relentlessness and toughness, ruggedness at every position across the board. I wanted to have competition on every level."
How much of the vision differs from the principles and schemes that were in place last year?
"It wasn't really comparing it to 2013. The group we ended the season with, or played a large part of the season with, was not the group we started with. So it looked drastically different. We knew the group we started with, the group in 2014, was going to be different in a lot of ways. It was, 'What do we want this to look like going forward? What's important to you?' "
Was the team as a whole in a tough spot trying to use a defense put into place by the former coaching staff?
I don't think so. I didn't really see it that way. The X's and O's are one thing. It's really the execution that makes a difference. Technique, fundamentals and being able to win one-on-one and having players who can compete and win on a consistent basis, that is what really makes the schemes come alive and allows you to be able to win and beat good teams.
"At times, that was probably our biggest challenge as the season went along. Not having continuity and trying to find consistent play at all three levels of our defense. That probably superseded scheme, those types of challenges."
How did you collaborate with the new coaches and the existing staff in structuring the defense for 2014?
"We went through the existing playbook and we watched every play from the season before. It was just a matter of deciding what we wanted to keep and what we wanted to throw out.
"A lot of what you see in the league, a lot of schemes and fronts, everyone has them. Everyone plays Cover-2. Everyone plays some type of quarters. Everyone plays Cover-1, Cover-3. They just have different names. With me having worked in a 4-3 and a 3-4, (linebackers coach) Reggie Herring has been in a 4-3 and a 3-4 and (defensive line coach) Paul (Pasqualoni) has been there, done that with different schemes. ... You just look at it, evaluate it and say, 'Hey, is this something we want to keep?'
"Some things we changed the name. Some things we just tweaked. Then there were other things we didn't have that we added, maybe something where we think we are going to have a certain type of player and we want to create more one-on-ones or we want to isolate this type of linebacker on a running back in pass protection.
"It was a very thorough evaluation of the previous scheme and terminology and going through that with a fine-tooth comb. That's pretty much what we spent the first few months doing."
Has the language of the defense changed?
"Some of it has changed and some of it has stayed the same."
Can you take me through this daily process?
"We met every day in the defensive staff room. We do everything together on defense. We would divide our days between watching tape on free agents and draft-eligible players and then doing scheme evaluation and playbook revisions and opponent studies and things like that. We do a lot of studies in the offseason. There really is no offseason. But there are also some personnel evaluations we have to do as well. We divided the time up and just got after it, we grinded it out.
What is the biggest difference between the defensive roster now and at this time a year ago?
"We've really fortified our defensive line in free agency and the draft, and I think that is big. At linebacker, we actually have more depth and more experience.
"A year ago, you're looking at Lance (Briggs), D.J. (Williams) and James Anderson. Now, you have Lance and D.J. back and you have Shea (McClellin), and this will be his third year in the league. Then, you have Khaseem (Greene) and (Jon) Bostic and they were just walking in the door this time last year. Both of those guys played.
"You add those guys with Jerry Franklin, Lawrence Wilson and some of the rookies we have, now I think we have an opportunity to be deeper there.
"We're more fortified in our front and it really starts upfront in any defense. You have to be able to win in the trenches in the run game and pass game, so that is where we really needed to start to lay a foundation."
What were you doing at Disneyland, when you were giving a sales pitch for the first time to Jared Allen in free agency?
"I was in Los Angeles with my family and we were on an Adventures by Disney vacation. When I talked to Jared, I was just leaving a restaurant and I was in the middle of a bus tour with the Disney folks and my family, bus full of other families and dads and some guy talking on the P.A. system and I am apologizing to Jared, 'Hey man, it's kind of loud, I'm on this bus on vacation.' He had no problem.
"But I don't want to talk too loud because people know I am a football coach and they know free agency is going on and they are checking their Twitter feeds every five minutes and I absolutely can't let anyone know I am talking to Jared Allen. I'm talking to him, but I have my hand covering my mouth and I'm trying to duck in this bus. He was great about it."
What was the sales pitch in "Hey Jared, come play for the Bears?"
Phil (Emery) has been gracious and said things like, 'Mel has done a great job recruiting.' I recruited when I was in college (coaching), recruited a lot of NFL players when I was in college. Like I would tell people when I was at Ohio State and we were recruiting Ted Ginn Jr., Donte Whitner or Troy Smith, who won the Heisman, I said, 'Hey, if I can't recruit to Ohio State, then I can't recruit.' If you can't recruit people to play defense for the Bears, then you can't recruit. That's not the hardest thing in the world to do. I don't take any credit for that."
How much football does Jared Allen have left to play for the Bears?
"A lot. He has a lot left. He gives people problems."
With all the additions you have on the defensive line, will there be greater variations in terms of the front?
"We'll have some alternative fronts. How much or how little we use them is to be determined. We have the guys who have the ability to rush inside and outside. I don't want to get too much into it. We have some versatile guys. We have guys who can play nose and three. It is going to be a competitive defensive line room. Very, very competitive."
Lamarr Houston has played in a two-point stance before. Is that something you could feature?
"Yeah. I told the staff everything is on the table. We want to have maximum flexibility. We want to be streamlined enough so our players will know what to do and they can play fast and react and be instinctive but comprehensive enough that we can handle anything.
"Then we can be unpredictable. Sometimes being unpredictable is not necessarily being exotic. When you line up one way maybe you have five, six different things you can do effectively and efficiently on a routine basis. That can cause problems for offenses because they have to play you honest and they can't predict what they will get out of a certain look. This doesn't necessarily mean a ton of different looks. It's doing different things out of the same look."
You have some experience using the wide nine. Is that in play?
"It's all on the table. Coach Pasqualoni has experience with the nine technique. There is a certain way that has to be coached and drilled so it can be effective in the run game and the pass game -- so it's not just an all-or-nothing thing, maybe great versus the pass and not so good versus the run.
"We have experience in that and Reggie Herring has experience in that in terms of fitting the linebackers. It can be a tool. It can be a game-plan deal. We're going to teach our guys over the course of (organized team activities and training camp how to play all those techniques so when we need them and we want them, we'll have them."
Where could Shea McClellin fit in the sub package?
"I like Shea as a blitzer. I think he can win on backs. From a linebacker standpoint, he has tremendous size. He likes to rush from a two-point (stance) and for him to win and get him isolated on a running back in pass protection is huge. We know he can naturally rush off the edge, but there is a difference between being a rusher and being a blitzer. I think he can bring tremendous value for us as a blitzer."
Do you sense Shea feels more at home at linebacker?
"I think he is comfortable in what we're asking him to do and what he sees in terms of, 'These are things I am going to be asked to do.' In our coaching sessions, he is moving very well in space and with his change of direction and things like that. His quickness, his balance, his body control are good. He doesn't look out of place."
Clint Hurtt, your assistant defensive line coach, comes from Louisville where they led the nation in sacks last fall. How does he fit into the coaching mix?
"He's a guy who was one of the bright young minds in college football. He was one of the top recruiters in the country and one of the top D-line coaches in the country. He has a very high football IQ, is very passionate about the game. He is going to be a tremendous coach in this league. Being able to work with Paul Pasqualoni and under a guy like that, what it does is it allows you to maximize what you get done with 10 defensive linemen on a day-to-day basis. You have two high-level coaches on the same page working with 10 guys. That's a huge advantage."
Can your first-round pick, Kyle Fuller, be a matchup cornerback for you, along the lines of what the Patriots did with Aqib Talib in covering Saints tight end Jimmy Graham?
"I think he has flexibility. I don't want to put the cart before the horse right now with him. I don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. Right now, we just have to get him lined up, teach him the terminology and the techniques and how we want to play, get him some reps.
"He has size, he has flexibility in terms of different ways you can play him. The thing I like about him the most is I think he would fit in as a player in almost any era of football. You know what I mean? I could see him playing in the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, the '90s, now. Guys like that are hard to find. He's going to play the game the way it is meant to be played."
A personnel guy used to tell me that in the Cover-2 scheme you needed two Pro Bowl safeties to play it right, that the scheme put so much pressure on that position. How will we see the roles at safety evolve with what you're doing?
"It depends on how the competition shakes out and who ends up being the guys. Then you play them according to their strengths because you always want to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. That is probably the toughest part, because you want to make the scheme work for everyone.
"I believe you have to have enough flexibility in your scheme and in coverages that you can pick the players you have. But you can't afford to say, 'Well, we don't have the players for the scheme.' We've added some coverages and some principles that are going to allow us to play to the strength of our players. Guys can be at their best."
Is that position the greatest unknown for you with a little less than four months until the start of the regular season?
"We have some players who have played in this league and started. You bring a guy like Brock Vereen in, who is new to the league but has played at a high level in college, I don't have a concern there. I feel good about the guys we have there and I feel like that is going to work for us. I feel like we'll have winning production at safety with hard work by the players and good coaching."
With Vereen, does he have the coverage ability to allow you to remain in your base defense at times vs. three-wide receiver packages?
"We'll see. He has done several different things in college. We'll just have to see how he looks here with what we ask him to do. We're going to put him in those situations in our workouts and our practices and throughout preseason and we're going to give him an opportunity to show what he can do so that way we will know.
"But he definitely has shown some flexibility in coverage whether it is press, off, tight end coverage, coverage outside, coverage in the deep part of the field. He has done a lot of different things. His high-level mental capacity and his athletic ability allows him to do that. He understands the game. It's not too big for him."
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