Bears looking to improve pass rush

Two crucial cogs along the defensive line for Chicago, Israel Idonije and Amobi Okoye, are set to hit free agency. Should the Bears spend money on their own or look to the open market for help?

Running back Matt Forte is the only Bears player getting much publicity as free agency approaches, but half of the team's 14 free agents are on the other side of the ball.

Next up after Forte, in terms of importance, is defensive end Israel Idonije. He has developed into a solid two-way performer - strong against the run and OK as a pass rusher. But the Bears would like more from the left end spot than the five sacks they got from Idonije last season. Considering he'll turn 32 next season, his arrow may no longer be pointing up. If the Bears decide to goose their pass rush with someone else's free agent, they may not be able to afford to hold on to Idonije.

Amobi Okoye signed a one-year deal a year ago as a free agent and contributed as a backup in the defensive tackle rotation. He also can play left end, and even though Okoye has five years experience, he's still just 24.

For the Bears' defense to perform well, it's imperative that it can pressure the quarterback with just the front four, and that didn't happen on a consistent basis last season.

Despite all the positive talk regarding the Bears' defense in 2011 - most of it coming from players and coaches at Halas Hall - Lovie Smith's team wasn't very impressive on that side of the ball.

DE Israel Idonije
Rob Grabowski/US Presswire

The Bears were a respectable 14th in points and 17th in yards allowed, and they were stout against the run, finishing fifth in yards and 10th in average gain allowed.

But only four teams permitted more passing yards than the Bears, and only three had fewer sacks per pass play. Those numbers may be OK for teams like the Packers and Patriots, which have state-of-the-art offenses to compensate, but they're not OK for Smith or for Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

The Packers' Aaron Rodgers threw for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns last year, and the Lions' Matthew Stafford threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns, so the Bears face two of the NFL's five most prolific quarterbacks twice every season.

"To say that we got enough (pass-rush pressure) the entire time, I can't say that," Smith said at the end of the season. "That's an area that we're going to look at. We always look to improve our defensive line."

Julius Peppers can't do it all himself, and even his 11 sacks were nowhere near the league leaders. Eight players had 12 or more sacks last season. The Bears got some inside pressure from Henry Melton, who had a career-best seven sacks (only two NFL tackles had more), but no other player had more than Idonije's five.

It's not that the Bears can't get pass-rush help in the draft, but it's unlikely they'll luck into someone like 49ers rookie Aldon Smith (14 sacks in 2011) with the 19th overall pick.

If the Bears decide they want immediate help, their best bets would be the Lions' Cliff Avril or the Cardinals' Calais Campbell, both four-year veterans with a lot of tread still on the tires. The 6-3, 260-pound Avril is undersized for the Bears' scheme, but that's not a concern with the 6-8, 300-pound Campbell, who is an ideal fit in Arizona's 3-4 defense.

Avril had 11 sacks last season, the most among all free-agent defensive ends, while Campbell had 8.0. Some other interesting players scheduled to hit the market on March 13 are the Falcons' John Abraham and the Colts' undersized Robert Mathis, who both had 9.5 sacks.

Abraham will be entering his 13th season and Mathis his 10th. But last season was the eighth time Abraham has had at least 9.5 sacks in a season, including 13 in 2010. The 6-2, 245-pound Mathis would have to be a situational rusher in the Bears' scheme, but he has had 9.5 or more sacks in seven seasons, including each of the past four.

The AFC champion Patriots have four defensive ends scheduled to become free agents, including two - 11-year veteran Andre Carter and former Bear Mark Anderson - who had 10 sacks last season.

DE Mark Anderson
Geoff Burke/Getty

After being cut in 2010 by the Bears, four years after his 12-sack rookie season, Anderson resurrected his languishing NFL career with the Patriots. Was that a fluke or a sign of a player who has recaptured the magic?

The stronger the Bears' pass rush, the more it will hide a secondary that isn't much better than mediocre.

Other than cornerback Charles Tillman, who was voted to his first Pro Bowl in his ninth season, no one in the Bears' secondary stood out, so it's debatable how much effort the team will put into re-signing a large group of its defensive back free agents.

Five players who have started games in the Bears' secondary are unrestricted this year.

Cornerback Corey Graham may be the most valuable of the bunch given his prowess on special teams, which earned him a trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl last month. The five-year veteran has just one start since starting nine times at cornerback in 2008, but he picked off passes in three straight games last season while subbing at nickel back when D.J. Moore was injured.

Tim Jennings started the first 14 games at cornerback last season but was benched for a week in favor of Zack Bowman. Then Jennings started the season finale after Bowman, who is also a free agent, was benched. Bowman had started the first three games in 2010 but was benched in favor of Jennings, who started the final 13 games. Clearly the Bears have confidence issues with both players.

Safety Brandon Meriweather was signed to a one-year deal just before the start of the 2011 season after he was cut by the DB-challenged Patriots, who had the second-worst pass defense in the NFL. The Bears found out why he was available as Meriweather played himself out of the lineup after four weeks as the starter at free safety.

Craig Steltz, another special teams stalwart, started the final four games last season at strong safety and played well enough to at least be in the mix again.


--The wife of former Bears Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris died Sunday night at a Norman, Okla. Hospital.

Ashley Firmin Harris is believed to have suffered either a stroke or brain aneurysm. She was 29. She was rushed to the hospital Friday afternoon after the couple came to town for a visit. An autopsy was scheduled for Monday.

The couple, who have two children together, a 3 1/2-year-old and a 4-month-old, were married on New Year's Day this year.

Harris spent seven seasons with the Bears after being selected with the 14th pick in the first round of the 2004 draft out of Oklahoma. He became the first defensive tackle in franchise history to be voted to three straight Pro Bowls (2005-07) before his performance waned because of knee injuries. He signed a four-year, $40 million contract extension prior to the 2008 season but was released after the 2010 season. He played last season with the Chargers and had three sacks and 13 tackles.

"Our hearts go out to Tommie and his family," Bears coach Lovie Smith said on the team's website. "When I first heard (Ashley was in the hospital), we all started praying and hoped there would be a different outcome. At times like this, what can you say except to try to be there for him in any way you possibly can."

Former Bears teammates Johnny Knox, Anthony Adams, Jason McKie and Israel Idonije flew to Norman to be with Harris. The funeral is scheduled for Friday in New Orleans.

--Last year's sixth-round draft pick, linebacker J.T. Thomas, was arrested and charged with misdemeanor possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana.

According to the West Virginia MetroNews, Thomas was pulled over at 3:55 a.m. Feb. 13 while going the opposite way on a one-way section of University Avenue in Morgantown, where Thomas played for the West Virginia Mountaineers.

"We are aware of the arrest of J.T. Thomas in Morgantown, WV," the Bears said in a statement. "We are currently gathering information to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the arrest."

Thomas spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve with a hip injury.

--Tim Bream, the Bears' head athletic trainer for the past 15 years, is leaving the team to take the same position at his alma mater, Penn State.

At Penn State, Bream will be working for new head coach Bill O'Brien, the former Patriots offensive coordinator, who accepted his new post last month but remained with New England through Super Bowl 46. Bream, a native of Gettysburg, Pa., succeeds George Salvaterra, who had been with the Nittany Lions since 1985.

"We have moved on from George," O'Brien said. "We've hired Tim Bream. He'll be the trainer and start here on Wednesday. I know him through NFL circles and through some people here at Penn State. He comes highly recommended, and we're really excited about having him on board."

--At linebacker, the Bears figure only to be looking to add depth behind Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Nick Roach in free agency and the draft. But they will be looking to upgrade at cornerback to complement Pro Bowler Charles Tillman and possibly at safety.

Since three of their own corners from 2011 are unrestricted free agents - Tim Jennings, Pro Bowl special teams standout Corey Graham and Zack Bowman - the Bears may be looking for more than one replacement. Safeties Brandon Meriweather and Craig Steltz are also unrestricted, so the secondary could have a radically different look in training camp.

--Backup quarterbacks Josh McCown and Caleb Hanie were surprisingly good and surprisingly bad, respectively, after Jay Cutler went down last season in Week 11.

It's difficult to imagine Hanie returning as anything more than a No. 3, but since 2011 fifth-round pick Nathan Enderle remains an unknown quantity, both veterans could go to camp with the Bears. Neither will attract much attention from other teams.

--After Forte was lost, two weeks after Cutler, restricted free agent Kahlil Bell made the most of the opportunity, rushing for 240 yards in the final three games, although his three fumbles were cause for concern. He still appears to be a better option than disappointing Marion Barber.

--Tight end Kellen Davis led the Bears with five TD catches, even though he had just 18 receptions. He could decide he wants to go to a team that gives its tight ends more opportunities to catch the ball. But, with former NFL tight end Mike Tice replacing Mike Martz as the Bears' offensive coordinator, Davis could get that chance without leaving town.

--Roy Williams (37 catches, 507 yards) didn't do enough to make him a priority for next season, but he did tie with Johnny Knox for the team lead in receptions by a wide receiver.

--LS Patrick Mannelly is busy rehabbing the torn ACL that prematurely ended his 2011 season, and he expects to be ready for the start of training camp, but he might not be cleared for activity until then. That could leave the Bears with a decision of whether to use FB Tyler Clutts in that capacity or bring in another full-time long-snapper, such as UFA Chris Massey, who was signed to replace Mannelly last season.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You look at our league. We have three quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Stafford) that threw for over 5,000 yards. You need to be able to rush them better. That is an area where we need to improve." -- Bears coach Lovie Smith on the team's defensive line.

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