First in a series
Defensive line questions hover for veteran unit
The issues with the offensive line and wide receiver have been the public flashpoints over the past two seasons. But the more significant concerns, in the organizations perceptions, lie on the other side of the ball.
A lackluster pass rush led the Bears to pursue an edge rusher with their first draft choice, 19th overall, in the 2012, selecting Shea McClellin from Boise State. Last year the focus was on defensive tackle and the Bears traded up in the second round for Oregon States Stephen Paea.
Teams with the Bears scheme do not trade up in second rounds for nose tackles. Paea is projected eventually to be either a starting under-tackle or a nose tackle in the impact tradition of Anthony McFarland, whom coordinator Rod Marinelli paired with Warren Sapp in a 2002 Super Bowl defense at Tampa Bay.
The template is apparent: McClellin and Julius Peppers reprising Simeon Rice on the edge; Paea and Henry Melton as disruptors with inside push.
Whether McClellin and Paea are as good as hoped will begin to become apparent when training camp starts and pads come on. But the Bears are short on impact players at both end, where Peppers and Israel Idonije are 30-plus, and tackle, where Melton is in a contract year and veteran Matt Toeaina has just two sacks through four NFL seasons.
Do we need to do a better job with the defensive line? coach Lovie Smith said. Yes. And I think those guys would say that. Were saying that because were capable of doing
2011 in review
The run defense was top-five for the second year in a row but in a league tilted by rule toward the pass, the Bears ranked 29th in sacks per pass play. That should explain the urgency with a pass rusher in the draft.
Peppers collected 11 sacks, right about average for a stellar career that has had 100 sacks over 10 seasons, tied for third-most in the NFL since 2002, the year Peppers came into the NFL.
His consistency has not wavered. Peppers had at least one sack in nine different games to go with 55 quarterback pressures (at least one in every game) and a tackle for loss in three of the seven games in which he wasnt credited with a sack.
Melton succeeded Tommie Harris as the three-technique linchpin of the defense and recorded three sacks through the first three games. But Melton had seven games with neither a sack nor tackle for loss, a measure of negative consistency that earned him some rare public criticism from Smith. Melton had 34 quarterback pressures for the year but six of those came in week one.
Idonijes five sacks were a slip from his career-best of eight in 2010 but he also was the only defensive lineman with at least one tackle in every game. The Bears may have felt the franchise need for a young edge rusher in McClellin but they also thought enough of Idonije to re-sign him for another season at, not the veteran minimum, but 2.5 million, with 1.5 million in signing bonus.
Paea started very slowly, with knee problems that cost him time in training camp and contributed to his being inactive for the first five games of the season. He debuted with a sack of Donovan McNabb for a safety against Minnesota and had at least a tackle, sack or pressure in all but one of his 11 games once he got on the field.
2012 Training Camp What to Watch
DE Julius PeppersShea McClellin
UT Henry MeltonStephen Paea
NT Matt ToeainaStephen Paea
DE Israel IdonijeCorey WoottonChauncey Davis
Notable free agents: DT John McCargo
The focus is on McClellin for a team that has had no player other than Peppers record double-digit sacks since Mark Andersons 12 as a rookie in 2006. Pass-protection drills featuring McClellin against tackles Gabe Carimi, JMarcus Webb and Chris Williams will be his first time in pads against NFL linemen and a chance to demonstrate that there is more than just minicamp moves.
Hes got really good movement, Marinelli said. Hes got really good speed. Hes got nice range. His size is fine. A real hungry guy and hes very smart. I know hes tough.
Now well get the pads on him. That determines everything but I believe hell come out and do a very nice job. But the movement, all the things you look for, its there.
Idonije and Peppers are known quality commodities. Wootton needs to have a first-ever injury free camp to save a roster spot but he will be under pressure from veteran Davis.
The biggest single positional question mark for the Bears arguably is D-tackle. Melton was inconsistent in his first season as a starter and Toeaina is solid but not a dominator inside.
The wild card is Paea. The Bears invested a high pick in him last year and the plan was to have a 300-pound mobile inside presence. His work against veteran interior blockers like Roberto Garza, Chris Spencer, Chilo Rachal and Lance Louis will be a strong indicator of Bears defensive fortunes for 2012.
Coaches were pleased with the early work of veteran McCargo, a first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in 2006. The Bills selected McCargo with the No. 26 pick, acquired from the Bears for second- and third-round picks used for Danieal Manning and Dusty Dvoracek.