By the time the Chicago Bears had won the Super Bowl in 1985 and cemented itself as perhaps the greatest defensive team in NFL history, Jeff Fisher's playing days were over. But Fisher spent 1981 through 1984 with the Bears as a backup defensive back and special teams ace. During that time, he watched first-hand as Buddy Ryan built the foundations of the Bears juggernaut.
Now, as head coach of the St. Louis Rams, it appears that Fisher is following that same blueprint, hoping to turn the Rams into the reincarnation of Ryan's "Monsters of the Midway" on the banks of the Mississippi.
When Ryan came to Chicago as defensive coordinator, the Bears' talent level on defense just wasn't there. Despite Ryan's innovative schemes, he didn't have the horses to consistently execute what he wanted to do: shut down the run and relentlessly pressure the quarterback, forcing turnovers.
The Bears started their project with an instinctive middle linebacker who could captain the defense and make plays sideline to sideline. Mike Singletary evolved into one of the greatest to ever play that role under Ryan's tutelage. The Rams have a player with similar talents in James Laurinaitis.
Next, the Bears solidified the middle of their defense with a pair of run-stuffing tackles, Steve McMichael and William "Refrigerator" Perry. Opposing offenses had to account for these two forces or face having their plays blown up in the backfield. Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers are the Rams versions of this dynamic duo. We saw them in Sunday's season opener doing their jobs, forcing the Arizona Cardinals to run outside the tackle box.
That was the next area for the Bears to build, and the Rams have followed suit. The Bears switched tackle Dan Hampton to defensive end and he became a pass rushing force. When Richard Dent joined him in 1983, the front four for the Bears was set. They had explosive, play making talent at all four spots, making double teams impossible. Chris Long fills the Dan Hampton role for St. Louis, while Robert Quinn showed his Dent-like pass rushing talents with three sacks of Carson Palmer Sunday.
With the middle of the front seven solidified, the Bears added athletic outside linebackers to secure the perimeter of the defense. Otis Wilson and Wilbur Marshall were terrors, able to obliterate running backs chancing a run outside the tackles and blitizing quarterbacks into countless turnovers. The Rams may have one of the those two in rookie LB Alec Ogletree. Ogletree's 11 tackles paced the Rams on Sunday.
Ryan didn't invest heavily in his back four, but had a type of defensive back he valued. He wanted smart, aggressive players, like Jeff Fisher. Ryan's safeties, Gary Fencik, Todd Bell and Dave Duerson, were tremendous in run support and punished receivers daring to come over the middle. It would appear the Rams have found two safeties who fit that mold in Rodney McLeod and TJ McDonald.
The Bears corners weren't flashy like Darrell Greene or Deion Sanders, but they rarely made mistakes in coverage and were outstanding tacklers. The Rams probably have more athleticism at the position. Cortland Finnegan is one of the more physical corners in the league, while Janoris Jenkins brings big play capability.
This process evolved for the Bears over the time Fisher spent with them. Ryan's defenses went from 14th in points allowed in 1981 to first in 1985, their Super Bowl winning year when they went 15-1 in the regular season. In 1984, the Bears set the NFL record for team sacks with 72.
The Rams have collected most of the pieces for such a dominant defense. Now it will be up to Tim Walton and Jeff Fisher to mold them into the kind of unit that can win championships.
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