Sacks are overrated -- if your defense can't get to the quarterback
It is probably no coincidence that when former Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache used to downplay the importance of sacks, his unit was often hovering near or at the bottom of the NFL rankings.
They love them now. And why shouldn't they? Led by Adewale Ogunleye's 4.5 sacks for minus-38.5 yards, the Bears are tied for second in the NFC behind Minnesota (and tied for fourth in the league) with nine players combining for 14 sacks.
Blache's point was that fans and reporters got too caught up in sexy statistics like sacks when the important thing to coaches is applying consistent pressure and forcing quarterback hurries that might result in a turnover; that with so many quarterbacks using a three-step drop, sacks were simply very hard to come by.
And that they were in 2003, Blache's last season, in which the Bears had a franchise-low 18. Ogunleye -- who had a career-high 15 sacks for Miami in 2003, 10 for the Bears in '05 and continued his every-other-year dominance with nine in '07 before tailing off to five last season -- just missed the Blache era. But it sounds like the two may have differed philosophically.
"I've never been a guy who's said that, me personally," he said of the idea that sacks are overrated. "Sacks -- this is what I do, and when we weren't getting sacks, I wasn't happy. This team wasn't happy.
"Pressures are good, especially when they get the ball out. Teams that get the ball out with three-step drops, you can't do anything about that. But this year we're able to get after quarterbacks both with the blitz and the front four. It's been fun, and all the work we did in the offseason is starting to pay off, and that's a big confidence-booster for us to keep going."
Against Atlanta on Sunday night, the Bears face a team tied for the NFL lead in sacks allowed with two and have gone three straight weeks without one.
"I think they confuse a lot of people with their misdirection and a lot of their formations," Ogunleye said. "I haven't seen defenses play them aggressive. It seems that teams are sitting back, almost like playing patty-cake and looking too much. For us, we've got to put our heads down, our blinders on, focus on our keys and hopefully they will take us to the ball."
In Lovie Smith's defensive scheme, ideally a team blitzes a third of the time, deploys an eight-man front one-third of the time and is in Cover 2 the other third. Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli said it's safe to assume the Bears have blitzed a little more than a third of the time.
Marinelli teaches football and talks football in a way that lets you instantly understand why his players respond so well to him.
To be a good blitzer, to get a lot of sacks, is to "really understand who you are," Marinelli said. "And then all the phases are so important; so many little things from your takeoff to your approach, the move area, the close.
"It's got to be all like that," he said, snapping his fingers. "It's like a baseball hitter. You're working on your skills and perfecting everything because everything is just this close from getting there and not getting there. You have to win that rush you're in, enjoy the moment, then let it go and do it again."
Of course, the pressure only works in tandem with the secondary understanding where they need to be (see: last year's last-second play in a last-second loss). Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is not going to stand around and wait to get sacked.
"He gets the ball out quick," Marinelli said of Ryan. "If they get a lead, they run the ball more, play-action boots, they get you outside. It can be a pass attempt but it can be way out there, play-action or a screen pass. We have to hit it, force that ball out fast."
At his current pace, Ogunleye could notch a new career-best. Cynics would say it doesn't hurt he's in his contract year, and nothing spells bucks like sacks. And nothing gets a defensive end more pumped than a sack on a nationally televised game.
"If you're getting dominated, it's pretty tough for an offensive lineman," said linebacker Lance Briggs, who has one sack for minus-7 yards. "In football, you're taught to have a short memory and move on to the next play. But if you're getting beat on a consistent basis, it's kind of tough to recover."
"It fires up the defense," said cornerback Charles Tillman, "and takes the momentum away from the offense. All I know is it makes my job a lot easier."
Marinelli calls the teamwork necessary to get one player a sack "the beautiful part about it."
And the sack itself? Well, let's just say he doesn't necessarily agree with Blache, who once said "Statistics are for losers."
"No, it's very important," Marinelli said. "Usually with a sack, that series most of the time is dead. It can end a series; it can end a game. But most important is consistent pressure. You don't want to get one here and then not again for 10 plays. He's got to feel us constantly coming at him, and then eventually you break them down and get the sacks."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
CHICAGO TOP STORIES
- Rawlings Chicago Bears 9'x9' Straight Leg Canopy Tent