Awesome, this Star Wars defense of the Chicago Bears. To watch it is to be captivated yet confounded. "One of the Buffalo assistant coaches came up to me after an exhibition game," says Chicago strong safety Todd Bell, "and he told me, 'We couldn't even put together a scout team of you to practice against. We can't figure out what you guys do out there.' " Bell smiles at the thought. "I guess what we have is like a Dallas offense," he says, "except it's a defense."
The Bears use nearly 80 "plays" that are run off what are technically three-, four-and five-man lines, although the linebackers play so tight the average fan might think the D is using an eight-man line. Their zone coverage can resemble man-to-man, their linebackers can react like linemen on one down and go 40 yards deep with a receiver the next, and their defense can change form even during a play. "Against the Raiders we ran 18 different coverages and 10 different fronts," says defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, the man who designed the complex system. "It's difficult for the quarterbacks to read and hard on the offensive linemen, who sometimes don't know who to block." The Bear truth is, it's tough on everyone. The Bears easily lead the NFL in total defense (allowing an average of only 242.2 yards) and rushing defense (87.8), rank second against the pass (154.4) and have an NFL-high 50 sacks after getting three in Sunday's 16-14 victory over Detroit. That win left Chicago with an 8-4 record and a three-game lead over Green Bay in the NFC Central. "We've been a good defense for the seven years I've been here," says Ryan with pride. "The reason this group is playing so well is that it has experience. We don't have any rookies in there to screw things up."
Ryan is a no-nonsense Oklahoman who is not afraid to speak his mind, even in top-volume disagreement with Bear coach Mike Ditka. Ditka has occasionally questioned the wisdom of Ryan's difficult, precarious system, which can collapse because of a single mental error. But Ryan has been using and refining it since 1978, when he went to Chicago after 10 years as an assistant with the Jets and Vikings. "The guy who really influenced my thinking was [former Jets head coach] Weeb Ewbank," says Ryan. "The toughest thing for him—and he was 100 years ahead of his time in offensive philosophy—was going against mixed coverages. I thought, hell, if it's tough on Weeb, then if I ever get a chance to head up a defense, that's what I'll use."
The results would not surprise Ewbank. Chicago's mixed pass coverages—e.g., "zones" in which defensive backs suddenly lock on to receivers as if playing man-to-man—so befuddled Atlanta and Tampa Bay last season that players and coaches alike misidentified what Chicago had been doing.
The centerpiece of his defense is the "46" alignment, which is basically—but not exclusively—a 5-1-5 set that's named after its original middle man, No. 46, former Chicago safety Doug Plank, now retired. This scheme forces the offensive line into one-on-one blocking and opens up all sorts of blitz possibilities. With it, the Bears sacked Raider quarterbacks nine times in a 17-6 win over Los Angeles earlier this month and dropped Minnesota's Archie Manning 11 times in a 16-7 victory over the Vikings on Oct. 28. "What we're proving," says All-Pro middle linebacker Mike Singletary, "is that it's possible to think and play defense at the same time."
Singletary, in his fourth year out of Baylor, is the 6-foot, 228-pound microchip who runs the unit on the field. He looks to the sidelines before each down and interprets a fusillade of head, foot and hand signals from Ryan; these are the code to the 60-page defensive game plan Ryan has drawn up earlier in the week. "Mike hits, covers passes, does it all," says Ryan, "and he works at it seven days a week. He picks up the game plan every Tuesday and studies it all night."
Singletary is the latest in the line of great Bear middle linebackers that includes Bill George, who virtually invented the position in the 1950s, and Dick Butkus, who made it the preeminent defensive role of the 1960s and early 1970s. Middle linebackers all but died out when NFL teams switched en masse from the 4-3 to the 3-4 in recent years, yet Singletary keeps the position alive, in a modified form. "He has many more responsibilities, both physical and mental, than the old-type middle linebacker," says Ryan. Singletary has replaced Plank as the constant in the 46, and he remains in the game as part of Chicago's nickel pass defense. "He's more cerebral than Butkus, who'd take on blocks and defeat them," says Chicago tackle Dan Hampton. "A lot of times we try to shield Mike from blockers, and he'll shoot into the hole as quick as a back and hit the runner with a shot that...well, he's knocked a couple of people out of games this year." That's Chicago-style cerebral.
Intimidating hits are surely part of the Bears' success; for all those X's and O's, this is still the outfit that has the Monsters of the Midway tradition to uphold. "Subconsciously," says defensive tackle Steve McMichael, "anybody who plays us has to have it in his mind: 'These guys are monsters.' " Consider just these few members of the lineup:
Hampton: 6'5", 266, no known pain threshold. Has played with cracked sternum, torn knee cartilage, ring finger so swollen that it was cocked forward at a 90-degree angle. Lifetime total—200 stitches. Once fell 45 feet from an oak tree when a branch snapped, and broke both legs and an arm. Saved the branch.
Singletary: Soft-spoken preacher's son off the field. On it, nicknamed "Samurai" for bloodcurdling screams emitted while tackling. An energetic tackier. Broke eight helmets while playing at Baylor—all his own.
Richard Dent: 6'5", 253, second-year defensive end who leads NFC in sacks with 14. Nicknamed "The Colonel," for his always-straight-ahead pass rush. "He only does one thing," explains Ryan. Does it right, however.
Al Harris: He was a defensive end last year. The Bears tried him at outside linebacker and liked what they saw. There's a lot to like, he's 6'5" and 253 pounds.
Mike Hartenstine: 6'3", 258, 10th-year defensive end. Nicknamed "Iron Mike" for his 143-game playing streak. Refused to sit out even with a surgical steel pin sticking out of his broken thumb. "Looked like a horseshoe nail," says Hampton proudly.
McMichael: 6'2", 263 self-described "madman" of defense. Devoted life to football after reading book on Butkus. Rattlesnake hunter in off-season. Shook up a preseason Platteville, Wis. Chamber of Commerce pig roast with his rousing rendition of Up Against the Wall Redneck. Hampton handled the guitar.
Gary Fencik: Swashbuckling veteran safety. Smart, daring. He's also a Yalie, which didn't prevent a recent poll by The Washington Post from naming him the second-dirtiest player in the league—behind the L.A. Raiders' entire defense.
There are other reasons, too, for Chicago's defensive strength, including an improved Bear offense that controls the ball for nearly 35 minutes a game. But most of the credit still belongs to Ryan. As Hampton has said, "If the offensive coordinators around the league got together, they'd probably have him assassinated." For now, however, they watch films of his defenders in action, about as often as teenagers watch MTV.
Harris gives Detroit's James Jones a lesson in what being cerebral Chicago-style means.
Ryan creates the Star Wars schemes, Singletary helps make them a smashing success.