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Can Caleb Williams-led Bears live up to hype? Will Seahawks soar again behind hot defensive scheme?

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:

But first, a look at one team garnering plenty of attention this offseason ...

The hype train is off and running in Chicago, with ballyhooed quarterback prospect Caleb Williams joining the kind of well-rounded roster that's completely foreign to the typical No. 1 overall pick. Despite making the playoffs just twice in the past 13 seasons, the Bears are drawing widespread interest as potential dark-horse contenders in the 2024 campaign. After C.J. Stroud abruptly flipped the script last season in Houston, could Williams follow suit in Chicago?

Well, the excitement around the Bears is certainly understandable -- and merited. Not only has this quarterback-starved franchise landed a gifted player at the game's most important position, but Williams is set up for success with a fine accompanying cast on both sides of the ball.

Since taking over as general manager in January of 2022, Ryan Poles has beefed up Chicago's defense via free agency (SEE: linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards), draft (defensive backs Tyrique Stevenson, Jaquan Brisker and Kyler Gordon) and trade (defensive end Montez Sweat). This unit really came together in the second half of last season under defensive-minded head coach Matt Eberflus. After acquiring Sweat at the trade deadline, Chicago ranked sixth in scoring defense (17.9 ppg) and 10th in total defense (309.2 ypg). With most of the personnel coming back, the Bears' D should be stingy once again in 2024. But what about Williams' direct support on offense?

On The Move the Sticks Podcast, Daniel Jeremiah and I often discuss how a young quarterback's success typically relies on The Three Ps:

  • Protection
  • Playmakers
  • Play-caller

Let's start with the protection in Chicago. Last year's offensive line was forced to deal with a number of injuries, limiting the unit's overall effectiveness. That said, 2022 fifth-round pick Braxton Jones and 2023 first-rounder Darnell Wright provided positive returns at the bookends, while 2021 second-rounder Teven Jenkins further cemented himself as a quality guard. With continued growth, this young trio can safeguard the rookie quarterback in 2024 and beyond. And this offseason, Poles added a pair of scrappy veteran options for the all-important center position: free-agent signing Coleman Shelton and trade acquisition Ryan Bates, both of whom also offer additional depth at the guard position. All in all, Chicago has built an offensive line that -- with better health luck -- can do just fine in protecting its first-year signal-caller. And if the first "P" holds up its end of the bargain, the second "P" is poised to terrorize opposing defenses.

You want playmakers? This team has 'em in spades! Fresh off a magnificent debut season in Chicago in which he set career highs in receptions (96), receiving yards (1,364) and receiving touchdowns (eight), DJ Moore already provided the Bears with a true difference-maker at the receiver position. Then in March, Poles traded for six-time Pro Bowl WR Keenan Allen. A month later, Poles spent the No. 9 overall pick on WR Rome Odunze. Suddenly, the Bears have a three-headed monster at wideout offering size, strength and inside/outside versatility. This trio will make Williams' life much easier by creating separation, expanding the strike zone and overpowering corners on 50/50 balls. And that's not all! Cole Kmet has emerged as an upper-echelon playmaker at tight end, giving Williams another big-bodied pass catcher to target over the middle of the field. And with the free-agent signing of athletic TE Gerald Everett, the Bears can create a dynamic "12" personnel package (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers). Overall, this pass-catching group is one of the league's very best. And I haven't even touched on the backfield, where Poles added explosive runner/receiver D'Andre Swift in free agency. Chicago has assembled a spectacular cast of weapons with interchangeable/complementary skill sets. The new QB1 has ample toys to play with.

Long story short, the Bears have checked the boxes on protection and playmakers. So, what about the third "P"? That brings us to Chicago's new offensive coordinator, Shane Waldron, who spent the past three seasons filling the same role under Pete Carroll in Seattle. If the Bears are to meet rising expectations, the 44-year-old coach must develop a plan that allows Williams to drive this ship with aplomb. With the Seahawks, Waldron helped turn journeyman Geno Smith into a Pro Bowler. Can he also compose an offense that allows a rookie starter to thrive under center? In his introductory press conference back in February, Waldron was asked if he thinks his system can adapt to the quarterback, regardless of playing style and/or experience. In answering the question, he didn't stutter.

"Yeah, I totally believe that," Waldron said. "I think, in the past experiences, like I said, with different quarterbacks, different experience levels, whether I was in a coordinator role or in a role as a position coach, I felt that way. I felt different quarterbacks have been able to step foot into the system, be able to learn it quickly. And that starts with us being able to teach it in a good and efficient manner where they understand it. And then being able to go and, again, adjust. Because each guy's gonna have a different skill set, so what direction does it go? The players really take ownership and control of that."

Waldron's work with Smith was quite impressive. The former second-round pick truly broke out in Year 10 while directing Waldron's run-heavy, play-action system that pushed the ball down the field. The Seahawks were supposed to be rebuilding in 2022, but they made the playoffs, and Smith was named Comeback Player of the Year. Geno completed a league-best 69.8 percent of his passes for 4,282 yards and 30 touchdowns (against 11 interceptions), compiling a sparkling 100.9 passer rating in the process. Smith's sudden efficiency and effectiveness suggest Waldron understands how to maximize the talent at his disposal while masking a quarterback's flaws within the pocket.

Waldron's striking success with Smith should help him earn Williams' respect as a teacher and play designer, while also assuring the veteran playmakers that they will get enough touches to impact the game. Though the offense presumably will prioritize the ground game to keep the Bears out of long-yardage situations, the mix of run and pass should enable Williams to string together easy completions on an assortment of throws at various ranges. That last part's crucial, as a blend of short, intermediate and deep passes will prevent defenses from condensing the field to slow down a promising ground attack featuring Swift and Khalil Herbert. As Moore, Allen and Odunze take turns working inside the numbers, Williams will have plenty of chances to stretch the field on vertical and horizontal plays. If the protection keeps the rookie upright in the pocket, Waldron will be in position to pick and choose how to attack opponents while limiting the risky plays from the green QB.

Great players can make carefully crafted plays come to life. So, given how universally lauded Williams is as a prospect, Waldron is under immense pressure to maximize the new face of the franchise in Chicago. Enthusiasm abounds in the Windy City, but if the Bears are going to justify all this publicity, they'll need supreme symbiosis between the play-caller and his star pupil.

Scheme to fuel Seahawks revival on D?

Pete Carroll took the Seahawks to unprecedented heights for the franchise by utilizing a Cover 3 defensive scheme that spawned copycats around the league. Although the defense ultimately fell apart after the Legion of Boom broke up, Seattle could be on the verge of a similar rise with head coach Mike Macdonald coming on board and implementing the hottest defensive scheme in football.

A seasoned assistant coach with the Ravens, Macdonald spent a year as the University of Michigan's defensive coordinator (2021) before taking the DC job in Baltimore and leading one of the NFL's top defenses in each of the past two seasons. He directed the No. 1 scoring D last season, utilizing tactics and strategies that could sprout throughout the league, with three of his former assistants (Baltimore's Zach Orr, Miami's Anthony Weaver and Tennessee's Dennard Wilson) and his successor at Michigan (the Chargers' Jesse Minter) landing defensive play-calling gigs this offseason.

As the scheme director who features simulated pressures and blitzes that were popularized in the college game, Macdonald deserves credit for crafting game plans that enable defenders to play fast and free between the lines. Though the system looks complex to the offense, the Xs and Os are easily digestible for defenders.

After speaking to players and coaches familiar with the defense, I believe the secret sauce lies in Macdonald's ability to teach his scheme, categorizing his play calls in buckets that make the learning easy for everyone. Macdonald teaches defenders the entire concept, instead of only their assignment, creating a plug-and-play system that enables the coach to run the same blitzes and pressures from different personnel packages.

To the offense, the different presentations of the same blitz create chaos, but the defense is simply executing its favorite blitz patterns with defenders switching roles. The approach is frequently touted by defensive coordinators around the league, but few have executed it like Macdonald and his staff. From playing a game of musical chairs in practice with defenders running through the same blitz from various positions to utilizing one-word play calls that set the front, pressure pattern and coverage, Macdonald finds a way to unlock his players' talents through creative scheming that enables them to play at a breakneck pace.

In Seattle, he inherits a talented defense with a core of playmaking veterans that could make the scheme pop. In fact, Macdonald might have a more talented unit in Seattle than he did with the Ravens last season. That statement might be hard to fathom, based on the Seahawks' defensive struggles in 2023 (ranked 30th in total defense, 25th in scoring, 31st in run defense and 21st in pass defense). However, the core of Leonard Williams, Dre’Mont Jones, Jarran Reed, Uchenna Nwosu, Riq Woolen and Devon Witherspoon is a collection of potential rock stars waiting to break out as a band. With a handful of veteran free-agent signees (Tyrel Dodson, Jerome Baker and Rayshawn Jenkins) and a few breakout candidates (Boye Mafe, Darrell Taylor, Coby Bryant and rookie Byron Murphy II) in place to help the group get back on track, Macdonald has the ingredients to put together a top-10 defense in his first season on the job.

Looking at their talents, the Seahawks have the trench warriors needed to create chaos at the line of scrimmage. Williams, Jones and Mafe combined for 17.5 sacks in 2023 in a scheme that did not feature "smoke and mirrors" calls designed to get free rushers to the quarterback. With Nwosu (9.5 sacks in 2022) rejoining the lineup after a torn pectoral muscle ended his 2023 campaign after six games, the Seahawks have four defenders who could pressure the passer from multiple angles. Furthermore, as Macdonald begins to experiment with second- and third-level pass rushers who offer disruptive potential, we could see the Seahawks utilize Baker (22.5 career sacks), Taylor (21.5 career sacks) and Witherspoon (three sacks in 2023) to heat up opposing signal-callers. The pieces are in place for the defensive play-caller to befuddle offenses with misdirection at the point of attack, creating easy sack opportunities.

Given the talent and athleticism in the Seahawks' secondary, Macdonald could mix and match coverage concepts. This would allow the overall deception to go to another level, with opposing quarterbacks unable to predict the coverage behind the pressure.

Though the pieces will need to come together quickly, the combination of scheme, learning environment and high standards could result in a surge similar to the one Seattle's defense experienced in the early 2010s, when the Legion of Boom dominated the league and the Seahawks emerged as perennial title contenders.

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