The base defense run by the Chicago Bears – a version of the Tampa 2 cultivated by Tony Dungy and Lane Kiffin in the late 90s – relies on the front four to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. In that way, the team can drop seven men into zone coverage and limit passing lanes. When the club is forced to blitz, it immediately drops out of its comfort zone, forcing the corners and safeties to play in man coverage, something in which none excel.
In essence, when the defensive line fails to get pressure up front, the entire defense is compromised. The Bears ranked 19th in the NFL last season in sacks (33.0), of which 32.0 came from the defensive line. As a result, Chicago finished 28th against the pass.
If the Bears are going to reach their goal of winning a championship this season, they cannot have a repeat performance from the defensive line. Let's break down the roster and see if the current group is better prepared to disrupt opposing passing attacks.
Julius Peppers is arguably the most athletically talented defensive end in the NFL. As such, opposing offenses typically double-team him on passing downs. Still, Peppers led the team last season with 11.0 sacks, a testament to his dominance on the field. Against the run, he's a beast as well. No player on Chicago's defensive line can set the edge like Peppers, who is nearly impossible to move. If his line mates step up this season, it will take pressure off Peppers, which could lead to more one-on-one matchups with opposing linemen, situations in which he usually excels. If opposing offenses are forced to give attention away from Peppers, he could approach the 20-sack mark in 2012.
That's a big if though, as Israel Idonije appears to be winding down his career. The club re-signed him to a one-year deal this offseason, but that was due mainly to his play against the run, where Idonije is solid. Yet the 31-year-old is fading as a pass rusher. Despite Peppers being doubled on nearly every passing down, Idonije could muster just 5.0 sacks last year. He sets the edge well but he cannot be counted on to get consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
For that reason, the Bears selected Shea McClellin in the first round of this year's draft. McClellin was a hybrid OLB/DE at Boise State, playing at numerous positions for the Broncos. Yet Chicago's coaches will use him as a pure pass-rushing defensive end.
On film, McClellin shows a ton of quickness off the ball and is relentless when getting after the quarterback. He has strong, active hands and uses a number of pass-rush moves. On passing downs, he should be able to wreak havoc, yet that may be the most we can expect out of him, as he struggles against the run. In college, McClellin was dominated by opposing tight ends, particularly in short-yardage situations, so it's hard to imagine him holding his ground against NFL offensive tackles.
Which is why the club will likely rotate Idonije and McClellin based on down and distance. Izzy will line up on the left edge on 1st and 2nd down, with McClellin coming in mainly on 3rd down. It's a smart rotation that utilizes each player's strengths.
The fourth and final defensive end spot will come down to a competition between Corey Wootton and Chauncey Davis. Wootton is the unproven youngster that has been slowed by injuries so far in his career. When healthy, he's shown great quickness off the edge. He has the potential to be a double-digit sack producer but only if he can stay on the field. Davis is more of a run stopper whose value will come on 1st and 2nd down.
If Wootton can stay healthy and repeat his performance from last year's training camp – when he was an absolute beast – then he'll make the roster. Yet Chicago's coaching staff has him on a short leash. A few slipups, or another injury, will lead to Davis getting the gig.
Ozougwa, last year's Mr. Irrelevant, is a camp body that will need to be ultra-impressive if he's going to make the final roster.
Henry Melton racked up 7.0 sacks last year, his first as the full-time starter at under tackle, which was third best amongst all NFL defensive tackles. Yet he was wildly inconsistent throughout the campaign. After picking up 3.0 sacks in the first three contests, he didn't earn another sack until Week 10. Additionally, he struggled mightily against the run. His goals this year are to develop consistency as a pass rusher and to learn how to anchor in the middle versus the run. If he can reach those goals, he'll make the Pro Bowl.
Matt Toeaina has been lining up next to Melton with the first team this offseason. He's a powerful player that gives full effort. Yet overall, he's not anything special. In essence, he's a perfect rotational nose tackle. He's not going to stand out on film but he does the little things well.
Stephen Paea, last year's second-round pick, will challenge Toeania in camp for the starting NT job. After sitting out the first five contests in 2011, Paea broke onto the scene in Week 6, picking up a sack on his second NFL snap. He only earned one more sack the remainder of the campaign but he showed well against the run. His strength – he set the NFL Scouting Combine record in bench press (49) – shows up on film. Combined with his squat frame, which gives him leverage, Paea is tough to move inside. If he takes another step in his game this year, he'll beat out Toeaina.
The Bears let Amobi Okoye – who picked up 4.0 sacks as the backup 3-technique last year – leave in free agency this offseason. To replace him, the club will initiate a camp battle between five unproven players: Collins, Pressley, Cameron, Miller and McCargo.
During OTAs, McCargo was lining up next to Paea with the second team. He appears to have the lead on the position heading into camp, yet that could easily change once practices start. Of the five potential backups, McCargo is the only player with an NFL start under his belt – he has started one game during his six-year career. Other than that, this group's collective resume is wildly unimpressive.
Lovie Smith once called the 3-technique, or under tackle, position the most important spot on his defense. Ideally, he's the player that gets one-gap penetration in the face of opposing quarterbacks. Tommie Harris excelled in that role in the mid-2000s, earning him three trips to the Pro Bowl.
Yet it doesn't appear the Bears have a solid plan in place for the most crucial spot on the defense. If anyone is looking to find a weakness on this defense, it will likely come at the backup under tackle position. We'll be monitoring this competition closely throughout camp.
We know that Peppers, Idonije, McClellin, Toeaina and Paea will be on this year's roster. If the Bears are impressed with both Wootton and Davis, they could go with five defensive ends, but considering the issues at 3-tech, it's more likely they'll keep five DTs. As such, I predict Davis will round out the defensive end spot, as he has experience and can stop the run.
At defensive tackle, it's really hard to say who will emerge as a contributor. For now, we'll go with McCargo, as he's the most experienced of the bunch, as well as Ronnie Cameron, an undrafted free agent with potential.
Honestly though, we'll have to see these guys with pads on before we can give an accurate prediction.
DE Starters: Peppers, Idonije
DE Backups: McClellin, Davis
DT Starters: Melton, Paea
DT Backups: Toeaina, McCargo, Cameron
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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.