Jared Allen has nothing to prove but plenty to learn.
The four-time All-Pro, who many regard as the best pure pass rusher of his generation, has been the prototypical weak-side defensive end during his first 11 NFL seasons, a 6-foot-6 rangy, quarterback hunter who defines the now-cliched non-stop motor.
The new regime in Chicago, however, is asking a 33-year-old dog to learn a few new tricks, namely morphing from a traditional 4-3 end to a stand-up 3-4 player.
And that will require Allen to add some serious lateral movement skills to his already well-orchestrated repertoire, not exactly a run-of-the-mill request for a player who has corralled the quarterback 132 times during a career whose GPS might ultimately point toward Canton.
John Fox, the Bears’ new head coach, and his defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, have no history with Allen but plenty with the 3-4 scheme, hence the shift in direction, something that has placed the veteran sackmaster directly behind the 8-Ball.
Allen’s now legendary work ethic, cultivated in stints with Kansas City and Minnesota, was such that coaches rarely pushed the veteran to attend offseason activities, understanding when the bell sounded Allen was going to play to the whistle and, far more often than not, outwork any offensive lineman mirroring him.
This time things are different and Allen was with the Bears for the start of offseason activities, not to necessarily impress Fox or Fangio, but to embrace the change on the horizon.
“Everyone was getting on me,” Allen said in a phone interview when asked about his appearance at voluntary minicamp, “but things are different now. I was telling my wife, ‘it’s college all over again, learning a whole new system and trying to understand the playbook.’ I haven’t had to do that for 10 years.”
Change is scary to some but Allen has embraced it and seems excited, even rejuvenated by the task in front of him.
“You see the coaching staff, it’s a proven group with success at every stop,” Allen said. “And that’s all I want. That’s all our defense wants. Sometimes you need to be put in a position to succeed and that was lacking for me over the past few years .”
Allen can point toward another veteran who spent the majority of his career with his hand in the dirt and then reinvented himself in Green Bay last season, ex-Carolina and Chicago star Julius Peppers.
Peppers was asked to do some new things in Titletown last season and excelled at times, a fact that has Allen thinking some observers exaggerate what seems, on the surface at least, like a drastic shift.
“Football is football,” the Idaho State product said. “Especially the pass-rushing aspect. It’s just getting off the ball in a two-point stance rather than a three-point stance, which is easier especially when you get comfortable with it. There should be more opportunities for one-on-one matchups.”
One-on-one is something Allen has rarely seen as the guy who set the NFL record for most consecutive games with a sack while with the Vikings, and nearly caught Michael Strahan for the single-season record when he accumulated 22 for Minnesota in 2011.
No one doubts Allen can get to the quarterback, though. The real challenge will be dropping into coverage.
Allen had some significant zone-blitz responsibilities in his old schemes, registering a pretty impressive five interceptions over the years, but those burdens will only increase in the 3-4.
“The difference is on the plays you have to drop you actually have to cover somebody instead of just eating up space,” Allen joked.
The veteran star doesn’t plan to rest on his well-earned reputation and eat up a different kind of space on a team which seems like it’s in a rebuilding phase. He visited new Bears general manager Ryan Pace and Fox back in March when the two attended the NFL owners’ meetings in Allen’s home of Phoenix.
“Change can be good or bad, it’s what you make of it and I plan on doing everything I can to make this work,” Allen said.
Interestingly Strahan was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last August, seven short years after finishing a brilliant 15-year career with 141 1/2 sacks, 24 forced fumbles and 15 fumble recoveries. If that’s the measuring stick Allen is only 9 1/2 sacks shy of the former Giants star’s total in four fewer seasons and already has more forced fumbles (32) and recoveries (19).
When it comes to legacy, however, there is one box Allen has yet to check, the Super Bowl, something Strahan was able to do after his Giants upset the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
“You can’t control how others think of you, you can only go out and play this game the best way you can,” Allen said. “I’m grateful people think about my name when they talk about the Hall of Fame. Whether I end up there or not is something to think about down the road.”
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