Last season, Chicago Bears defensive tackles Henry Melton and Amobi Okoye combined for 11.0 sacks – the most by a defensive tackle duo in the Windy City in more than 15 seasons. Yet Okoye, after resurrecting his career under coordinator Rod Marinelli, bolted to Tampa Bay this offseason.
GM Phil Emery has filled a number of holes on the roster the past few months but he failed to find a replacement for Okoye. Inside of signing an accomplished veteran, the team will be conducting a training camp battle amongst the following five players: John McCargo, Demario Pressley, Nate Collins, Jordan Miller and Ronnie Cameron.
Those five defensive tackles have just one NFL start under their collective belts, which is troublesome to say the least.
Coach Lovie Smith has called the under tackle, or 3-technique, the most important position in his version of the Tampa 2. The position calls for a one-gap penetrator that gets pressure in the opposing quarterbacks' face, allowing the team to drop linebackers into coverage instead of bringing them on the blitz. The club can then sit in zone, its bread and butter, instead of being forced into man coverage.
DT Henry Melton
Melton, in his first season as a starter at under tackle last year, was solid. He finished the season ranked third amongst all NFL defensive tackles in sacks (7.0). He believes he can take the next step in 2012, now that he has a full year at DT under his belt.
"It's only going to help me for this year to be where I want to be, which is hopefully Pro Bowl status," Melton said.
There's no reason to think he can't reach that goal this year. Yet Melton can't play every down. The Bears need to find a player that can rotate inside and get consistent pressure up the middle. No player on the current roster appears ready to fill that role.
Which has led some to speculate that the team might consider moving defensive end Israel Idonije inside on passing downs. Idonije has played a good chunk of his career at defensive tackle. On 3rd down, the team will likely utilize first rounder Shea McClellin off the edge, which would free up Idonije to slide inside.
Yet Idonije doesn't believe that will happen.
"No, I will be playing light this year," Idonije said during veteran minicamp. "I would love to get inside, on passing downs or situational, or when the coach just says 'hey, we need a guy down there inside.' But I'm focused on getting to the quarterback from the outside."
During OTAs, Marinelli experimented with a package where Julius Peppers moved to defensive tackle and Melton shifted outside. This happened sporadically last season, with decent results. It appears the Bears are again interested in using Peppers at different spots along the defensive line.
The same can't be said for Idonije.
Which brings us back to the worrisome lack of depth at 3-tech. Right now, McCargo is working as Melton's primary backup. We'll see in camp this year if he can hold that spot or if one of the other four linemen will overtake him. Unfortunately, it's highly doubtful the winner of this camp competition, whomever it is, will be a significant contributor in 2012.
There is also the possibility the club might sign a veteran free agent. Tommie Harris is still on the market and would come cheap – although that seems unlikely. As of right now, the club appears set to head into camp with its current group of defensive tackles, which could come back to haunt this team, especially if Melton gets hurt.
Then, by sheer attrition, Idonije might be forced to move back inside.
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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.