Tommie Harris was a three-time Pro Bowler during his seven years in Chicago. He peaked in 2007, racking up 8.0 sacks, the most by a Bears defensive tackle since Jim Flanigan's 8.5 in 1998. He earned 5.0 sacks the following season before knee and hamstring injuries derailed his career. In 2009 and 2010, he had just 4.0 sacks combined.
His rapid decline in production forced Chicago to cut him this past February. Even though Harris had made strong contributions while playing with the Bears, including helping the team to a Super Bowl berth in 2006, the organization made a tough decision and chose to go younger on the interior of the defensive line.
From the moment Harris was released, Chicago's coaches began to praise Henry Melton. Harris played defensive tackle throughout his collegiate career, and won the Lombardi Trophy his senior season at Oklahoma. So his success at the NFL level wasn't much of a surprise. Yet, heading into this year, Melton was a relative newcomer to the position. He played running back his first season and a half at Texas, before switching to defensive end his junior and senior years.
DT Henry Melton
The Bears, enamored with his athleticism and explosiveness, selected him in the fourth round of the 2009 draft. He was placed on injured reserve his rookie season and didn't see any playing time until 2010. Yet he played in all 16 games last season and saw action at both defensive end and defensive tackle. He picked up 17 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Yet his brief time inside showed Chicago's coaches his potential as a defensive tackle. When the decision to cut Harris was made, the Bears told Melton to pack on weight, to bulk up from 265 pounds. He showed up to training camp this year noticeably bigger and is currently listed at 295. That might be a bit of a stretch but he has definitely tacked on mass, enough where he's been able to dominate inside as a pass rusher.
Melton has 7.0 sacks through 13 games, which is tied for the league lead in sacks by a defensive tackle, and is the most by a Bears DT since Harris in 2007. All this from a guy who had never started a game at defensive tackle before this season. Yet, despite his lack of experience, his production this year has come as no surprise to Chicago's coaches.
"It's what we felt [he could accomplish] because he had the movement, the speed, explosion," said coordinator Rod Marinelli. "Now he's just getting better and better every week."
Melton is lightning fast off the ball, with strong hands and a powerful upper body. Yet it's his quick feet that have earned him the majority of his sacks. Few defensive linemen in the NFL can maneuver through confined spaces like Melton. As a former running back, his ability to skirt through the cracks in protection is almost second nature. When you combine you his raw strength, you create a formidable interior pass rusher.
After picking up 2.0 sacks in the season opener, Melton's production fell off a bit the following month and a half. He was then called out by coach Lovie Smith through the media, which appears to have woken him up. Melton has four sacks in the last five contests, and one each in the last three.
"I think he's really playing very well. I've been very happy with him, the athleticism," Marinelli said. "He has the ability to get up the field and make plays. He's making really good progress."
Melton's ability to disrupt in the middle of the field has opened things up for the rest of his defensive linemates. Defensive ends Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije have combined for 13.0 sacks rushing off the edge, while DT Amobi Okoye, who lines up next to Melton on passing downs, has 4.0 sacks of his own. Okoye and Melton both have 42 sack yards, tied for second among NFL defensive tackles this season.
In fact, Melton has been such a force on passing downs, that opposing offenses are now beginning to double-team and chip him, a strategy typically reserved for Peppers.
DE Julius Peppers & DT Henry Melton
"It's great [playing next to Melton]," said DT Matt Toeaina. "Especially on passing downs, a lot of the O line is keying on Henry because they know he's an effective pass rusher. Along with Henry, and then you have Pep and Izzy as well, the O line has a lot to think about, especially when they throw Amobi in there. So we've got pretty good rush men for the passing downs."
That third-down foursome has been fierce the past three weeks, racking up 11.0 combined sacks.
"On third down, that's our package right there is those four, and all those guys are capable of getting to the quarterback," Toeaina said. "So I think for offenses that makes it even more difficult. There's not just one guy to key, there's four guys."
What makes Melton even more exciting his potential. In essence, he's a rookie to the defensive tackle position yet he's absolutely exploded out of the gate. With some seasoning under his belt, the sky is the limit. It's not crazy to think a few trips to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl are in his future, possibly as early as this season.
"That's what's really special I think," said Marinelli. "And he's doing a nice job right now. So he's got a chance."
The Bears use a Cover 2 scheme that relies on the front four, and not the blitz, to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks. On more than one occasion, Marinelli has said the under tackle, or 3-technique, is the most important position on the team. In Chicago's system, when pressure is applied up the middle, opposing offenses have little chance at success, which makes what Melton does so critical.
He is signed through 2012, finishing up his rookie deal. Yet this offseason might be a perfect time to lock him up long-term. The Bears have a lot of money to work with. Using a chunk of it on the best under tackle this team has had in five years would be a wise move. With Peppers and Okoye on the roster, signing Melton would solidify the pass rush for years to come.
**Update: Melton has not practiced at all this week due to a shin injury and is unlikely to play this weekend.
"We thought he would be doing a lot better but he didn't practice today," coach Lovie Smith said after practice today. "That's never good when you don't practice on a Friday."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.