Hoge: If Healthy, Bears’ Outside Linebackers Should Be Strength Of The Team

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Willie Young and Akiem Hicks celebrate a sack against the Jaguars. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — On a roster that seems to be changing almost daily, one position room inside Halas Hall will look almost exactly the same in 2017.

In fact, the only major difference will be the men coaching the players in the room: defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and newcomer Brandon Staley.

For the Bears’ outside linebackers, the only major subtraction was position coach Clint Hurtt, while additions include veteran Dan Skuta, Staley and, well, a more hands-on approach from the coordinator entering his third year with the team.

“This will be our first year working hands on with Coach Vic,” Willie Young said. “From his past, obviously he’s worked with some Hall Of Famers, All-Pros, Pro Bowl guys, he’s had it all — A-to-Z he’s had those guys. So coming into it, we know that he has the experience and the knowledge to get us where we want to be and where he wants us to be also.”

The Bears have downplayed Fangio’s extra responsibilities with the outside linebackers because it has always been a position he has given extra attention. After all, his 3-4 scheme depends on his edge rushers getting to the quarterback — something the Bears have not done often enough in his first two years in Chicago.

But unlike most of the Bears’ roster, the issue with the pass rush hasn’t been talent — there’s plenty of that to go around. While all five of the Bears’ top outside linebackers will be back this season, four of them dealt with significant injuries last season. Young, for instance, dealt with knee and elbow injuries and had the knee scoped in the offseason. Pernell McPhee played through ongoing knee pain and needed shoulder surgery. Lamarr Houston tore an ACL for the second time in three seasons. And Leonard Floyd managed seven sacks despite dealing with an illness, a shoulder injury, a hamstring issue and two concussions in his rookie season.

Naturally, frustration built up in a room the players feel is full of talent. Young and Sam Acho were the only outside linebackers able to play in all 16 games, and the Bears believe the pass rush can be a big strength of the team if the players can just stay healthy.

“Dominate. Destroy every opponent that we face,” McPhee said when asked about the mentality of his position group. “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.”

McPhee has lost 25 pounds since the end of the 2015 season and he hopes the lighter, swifter version of himself takes the pressure off his knees and puts it on opposing quarterbacks.

“The only thing on my mind is keeping my faith with God and staying healthy, and everything else is going to prove itself, because you know I can play,” McPhee said.

One of the biggest reasons why the Bears did not make major changes to their outside linebackers group this offseason is because they believe the versatility of the room creates major challenges for opposing offensive coordinators.

“You can’t just show up during the course of a game and prepare for who you’re going to see that week,” Young said. “You don’t know who is going to be where, who is going to be on which side. All of us have a different skill set: we’ve got a power guy, a speed guy, a finesse guy, we have a guy who can run through your face, guys who can get to the quarterback.”

You’d be hard pressed to find a more versatile, unique outside linebackers room in the NFL, and it also happens to be the Bears’ most experienced position group, even with Floyd only entering his second professional season. Between Young, Houston, Acho, McPhee and Skuta, there’s 34 years of NFL experience to go around.

Of course, with age comes injury and diminished skills, which is why it was still somewhat surprising to see general manager Ryan Pace pass on adding an extra edge rusher in the draft. On paper, outside linebacker might be the Bears’ deepest position, but injuries tend to rip apart paper depth charts, which this team knows all too well.

So for the second straight offseason, the Bears’ primary defensive goals were two-fold: stay healthy and create more takeaways. On both accounts, that starts with the pass rush.

“Takeaways don’t just come by playing the game, it takes a legit effort to get that done,” Young said. “So that’ll be one of our biggest goals of 2017.”

When you strip down the NFL, the game usually comes back to two things: quarterback play and the ability to sack the quarterback. Well, the Bears overhauled their quarterback room, but left their pass-rushing room mostly untouched.

“Just staying healthy is the key,” McPhee said.

No one will argue with that.

Adam Hoge covers the Chicago Bears for WGN Radio and WGNRadio.com. He also co-hosts The Beat, weekends on 720 WGN. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.