Last season, Chicago Bears defensive tackles Henry Melton and Amobi Okoye combined for 11.0 sacks – the most by a Bears defensive tackle duo since 1995, when Jim Flanigan and Chris Zorich combined for 12.0. Melton and Okoye accomplished the first goal of a 3-technique tackle in Chicago's defense: get to the quarterback.
Yet Okoye bolted in free agency and the Bears have been scrambling to find his replacement ever since. The team brought in a number of unproven players to challenge for the position, including trading a seventh-round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Brian Price during the first week of training camp. Yet of the current crop of Price, Nate Collins, John McCargo and Jordan Miller, no player has proven to be a consistent pass rusher on third downs.
Nate Collins has been arguably the best of the bunch, showing good explosion off the ball and the ability to one-gap penetrate.
"Nick Collins is coming along really well," said coordinator Rod Marinelli after yesterday's practice.
Collins is currently the frontrunner for the backup 3-tech spot. He picked up a sack and a hurry in the preseason opener and on three occasions drove the blocker in front of him deep into the backfield. Unfortunately for the Bears, Collins will be suspended for the regular season opener for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
DE Israel Idonije
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire
Price, after starting slowly, has come on strong of late. Stephen Peas is the only Bears defensive tackle that can match Price's power. He can bull rush with the best of them. At this point though, Price is better suited at nose tackle than at under tackle.
So where do the Bears go from here?
The answer might come in the form of Israel Idonije, the team's starting defensive end the past two seasons. Idonije started his career as a defensive tackle before eventually moving to end. He had mixed results as a defensive tackle, sometimes playing very well but often being overpowered against the run, thus the move outside.
Chicago's coaches have been evaluating the team's defensive tackles all offseason and got a good look at them during the game against Denver last Thursday. They obviously aren't satisfied with the talent at the position. As a result, during the practice immediately following the preseason opener, Idonije was moved inside to defensive tackle during 2-on-2 rush drills, where he looked explosive. It was the first time he had played DT since 2009, yet he didn't appear to skip a beat. The coaches did the same with him during team drills, and have followed that pattern during every practice since.
The key to this move is the recent play of both Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin. Wootton has been arguably the most-impressive defensive lineman in training camp. His speed, quickness and agility off the edge has been very impressive. He has consistently worked over the team's offensive tackles in practice and, while he didn't pick up a sack, got consistent pressure against the Broncos.
And the rookie McClellin, after starting off slow, has made huge strides as a pass rusher the past week and a half. He earned a sack against Denver and was on the verge of picking up two more. It was a debut that gave everyone confidence McClellin can apply pressure on passing downs.
With these two showing the potential to be quality edge rushers this season, the opportunity arose to fill the club's need at DT with Idonije. During practice, McClellin has been coming in on nickel downs, with Melton and Idonije inside, and Julius Peppers on the far side. It's a foursome of quick, explosive rushers that could cause havoc for opposing offenses on game day.
This isn't the only shifting going on, as Peppers has been occasionally switching places with Melton on passing downs. The versatility of these players has allowed Marinelli to mix and match lineups. It appears he has settled on a foursome that has the potential to be extremely disruptive this season.
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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.