Why Andrew Billings could be key to improved run defense

Why Andrew Billings could be key to improved run defense originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

When folks talk about premium positions on defense in the NFL, more often than not they’re talking about edge rushers and cornerbacks. Quarterbacks and passing attacks dominate the league, so the best way to counteract them is to pressure the QB with a strong pass rush and lock down wide receivers with sticky coverage. In the Bears defense we talk a lot about how the three-technique tackle, the weakside linebacker and the slot corner are premium positions. Rarely do we hear about how a strong nose tackle could improve a defense’s fortunes. It’s not a flashy position, since they largely clog rushing lanes and try to dent the pocket from over the center. But for the Bears, an uptick in play from their new nose tackle Andrew Billings could go a long way towards stopping the run and putting the team in more favorable positions overall.

When Matt Eberflus’ defense really starting humming in Indianapolis, not only did he have star three-tech DeForest Buckner, he had a reliable running mate for Buckner in Grover Stewart.

“It makes a world of difference,” Eberflus said of having two impactful tackles in the middle of the line. “Because if you’re able to set edges at the defensive end… then if you’re able to keep your gap and dominate inside with the two tackles, there’s really not a lot of work for others to do, to be honest with you.”

Everything starts up front for the Bears defense. If the front four do their jobs as Eberflus described, that allows the linebackers to scrape downhill and attack the ball carrier for easy stops in the run game. If they’re able to create pressure by themselves, that allows everyone else to drop back in pass coverage which limits passing lanes for opposing offenses.

The Bears also need their front four to work in concert. If one man isn’t holding his own things can fall apart. That’s where Billings comes in.

“He commands a double team,” said Justin Jones. “That singles me up. Teams just can’t slide to me every time. Teams can’t just send a chip my way, send a slide my way. I don’t know if you’ve seen, a lot of the games that we played (last season), the center is always on me, every time.

“Now that we have ends that get upfield and get around the edge, and we’ve got a guy who can split a double teamー not just Andrew Billings, but Gervon Dexterー you know, guys who can push the line back and stuff like that, that frees me up a lot. So it’s exciting.”

The Bears just put the pads on for the first time earlier this week, so we’ve only recently gotten our first real chance to see what Billings can do in the middle. On Sunday, Billings flashed into the backfield several times working against Alex Leatherwood and the second-string offensive line. He both flushed Justin Fields out of the pocket and forced incomplete passes, and stuffed runs for TFLs or minimal gains. We’ve seen Billings give starters like Cody Whitehair trouble in one-on-one reps, too.

“You could see the quickness,” Eberflus said. “I always knew he was strong at the point. I saw that on tape when I watched him with opponents, but he’s really got some good quickness, his initial quickness. He’s got a quick set of hands. When you play that nose tackle position, your hands have to move from the ground to the man super fast. It’s gotta be elite and he does a really good job with that, and he’s got the foot quickness to be able to stay where he needs to stay.”

Part of that success this summer is because Billings is what Jones describes as a “real technician” at the position. Another part is because Billings really attacked his training regimen between minicamp and the start of training camp. Eberflus praised Billings for changing his body to boost his athleticism on the field.

The Bears were one of the worst teams against the run last season, so they’ll need Billings to be at his best.  In 2022, the Bears surrendered the most rushing touchdowns in the NFL (31), the most rushing first downs (151), the second-most rushing yards (2,674) and tied for the sixth-worst yards per carry average (4.9). It will take big time improvements to climb out of that hole this season, but Jones believes he’s seen enough already to be confident that a jump is coming.

“It’s going to be night and day from what we were last year.”

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