The Houston Texans defense returns 10 of its 11 starters from 2015 and stormed through a 4-0 preseason that included a franchise-record 12 takeaways. Those are overall problems for a struggling Bears offense that wobbled through a 1-3 preseason scoring all of 50 total points (12.5 per game) and not all that many of those scored by the No. 1 Chicago offense.
But within that overall looms a specific, ominous matchup issue that singularly can dictate the course of Sunday’s season opener. It lies in what Bears Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent has long called his “Rule of 3,” that every great defense has three pass rushers of menace. Three because it makes double-teaming so many people extremely difficult.
And Houston has three. Three who combined for nearly as many sacks (34) as the Bears did as a team (35). And that was with one of the three dealing with injuries.
For perspective purposes on The Colonel’s axiom: Los Angeles Rams “Fearsome Foursome” – Deacon Jones, Lamar Lundy, Merlin Olsen (Jones and Olsen, Hall of Fame); Minnesota Vikings “Purple People Eaters” – Carl Eller, Jim Marshall, Alan Page (Eller and Page, Hall of Fame). The Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” – Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, Dwight White (Greene Hall of Fame). Bears “46” – Dent, Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael (Dent, Hampton, Hall of Fame).
It may not always be three specific individuals; the 2015 Denver Broncos, like the 2006 Bears (Mark Anderson, Tommie Harris, Alex Brown/Adewale Ogunleye/Brian Urlacher), had two dominant rushers in Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, but also the combination of Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe (5.5 sacks each).
But the Texans DO have three elites, and that greatly concerns the Bears. Jadaveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus, both listed as linebackers, the Texans’ equivalent of Lamarr Houston, and J.J. Watt, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
All three are first-round draft choices – Clowney No. 1 (2014), Mercilus No. 26 (2012), Watt No. 11 (2011). Clowney has been beset by injuries through his first two seasons but still managed 4.5 sacks last season in a Houston defense that was No. 3 in yardage allowed, No. 3 in sack percentage and seventh in points allowed.
“I’m ready to get it on with the Bears,” Clowney said this week via HoustonTexans.com.
Mercilus, whom the Bears passed on in favor of Shea McClellin, has never had fewer than five sacks in any of his four seasons, topped by 12 last year.
And Watt is his own problem, regardless of what he feared was a career-ending abdominal injury and surgery in January, plus July surgery on a herniated disc. Watt is listed as a 3-4 defensive end but lines up at tackle and even nose in situations, besides being all of the field after the snap.
“I think the thing that frustrates a lot of people about J.J. is he just doesn't quit,” said guard Kyle Long, who knows Watt from shared Pro Bowl times. “Obviously from a physical standpoint, there's not many guys who can do what he can do, if any. His length, his strength, his speed. But the thing that separates him is his will and he's a gritty guy; he's determined and he's going to terrorize you.”
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The Texans are expected to scheme with a mind toward getting Watt single’d up vs. rookie center Cody Whitehair or right tackle Bobby Massie, whose strength is run blocking.
How the Bears scheme to prevent Whitehair from being overwhelmed in a hostile stadium, in his first NFL game, against one of the NFL’s elite collection of talent, will be potentially game-changing. Particularly given that he is part of a Bears offensive line that has never played together in its current form.
“I think since preseason I don’t know if we’ve had all 11 guys out there at one time, so we’re excited to finally feel like we’re at full speed,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “We’re excited about the opportunity to go and play a really good football team. It was the first time this coaching staff and this group has really game-planned a lot. We’ll see.”