Ironing out the D-line rotation

For most backups, special teams are the path to a roster a spot. But in Chicago, where defensive linemen are rotated virtually non-stop, roster decisions are based on defensive performance.

When you talk to Chicago Bears defensive linemen, eventually the conversation steers to coordinator Rod Marinelli. Inevitably, the players begin discussing his coaching style and the expectations he places on his defensemen.

"Coach Marinelli gets the best out of you no matter what," DT Brian Price told Bear Report today. "That's why so many great players love him. He makes everybody feel special. Once you step out there you know you're going to give it your all."

Price is one of Marinelli's newest projects. At the beginning of training camp the Bears traded a seventh-round pick to the Buccaneers for Price. He lost his sister in a car crash earlier in the offseason and was having trouble coping in Tampa Bay. Both the Bears and Bucs felt he needed a change of scenery, and it appears to be working.

Price struggled early on with Marinelli's coaching style but has shown steady improvement each week.


Rod Marinelli
Jonathan Daniel/Getty

"I think the biggest thing you look for is the pace and the tempo of how we do things and I think [Price] is picking that up a little bit each week," Marinelli said. "We've seen progress. You want more and you want it faster. But he's shown some good play, some power, balance, and he's had what I call ‘flash' plays where he's flashed in practice or in games. Now you want to see consistency. But he's a highly talented man, very bright guy."

During the preseason, Price has been manhandling opposing blockers off the ball. He's extremely explosive, which, combined with this size (6-1, 303), makes him very difficult to block.

As a result, Price is in very good shape to make the final 53-man roster. Yet whether or not he's invited back to practice next week will depend on how many defensive linemen the Bears choose to keep. Last season, the club kept 10 trench players: five defensive tackles and five defensive ends. It's unclear at this point whether they'll stick with 10 or drop to 9, considering the current injury issues at safety and linebacker.

At defensive tackle, Henry Melton and Stephen Paea are locks, and it would be surprising if the club cut Matt Toeaina. Next in line is Price and third-year player Nate Collins. Both will likely be kept, yet the coaches may decide there's only room for four. That decision would come down to how the coaches grade each player based on the preseason games.

"We get graded hard, real hard," said Price. "But it actually is there to make you better because every little thing is critiqued. It keeps you working."

Both Collins and Price have rotated between nose tackle and under tackle, demonstrating needed versatility.

"You've got to be ready for both," Price said. "You can't let it be known that you're only comfortable with one or the other. I try to prepare myself mentally for both of them."

According to GM Phil Emery, Price was brought in to be a one-gap penetrator, the key attribute of a 3-technique tackle in a 4-3 defense. Yet he's actually shown better at nose tackle, as he's been able to easily clog running lanes.

A key factor in deciding how many tackles to keep is Paea, who hasn't practiced since Aug. 11 due to an ankle injury. Paea said initially it would only keep him out a week or two but the odds of him playing in Week 1 get slimmer by the day. If the injury continues to linger, the club will have no choice but to keep five defensive tackles, as they consistently use a four-man rotation at both end and tackle during games.

Chicago's defensive ends are in a similar spot. It was revealed this week that Julius Peppers has plantar fasciitis in his foot and likely will be limited throughout the season. That means Israel Idonije and Shea McClellin will have to pick up a lot of the slack. That also means Corey Wootton has a chance at a considerable bump in playing time, assuming he stays healthy through the preseason finale.

"Right now, because it's the preseason, nothing is too set in stone," said Wootton. "So that's what we're competing for, when the season comes around, roster spots and playing time and things like that. But we don't really know how that's all going to unfold until this week."

Wootton has looked great this offseason and likely will serve as the team's fourth defensive end. Yet with his injury history and Peppers less than 100 percent, the coaches will likely lean toward five players at the position.


DE Cheta Ozougwu
Jonathan Daniel/Getty

That opens up a spot for either the veteran Chauncey Davis or the undrafted rookie Cheta Ozougwu. Davis is a solid run stopper but he doesn't offer much in the pass-rush department. Ozougwu, on the other hand, excels at putting pressure on the quarterback. He has demonstrated great quickness off the edge, racking up 2.0 sacks so far in the preseason.

"I consider myself a speed pass rusher," Ozougwu said. "I think I can play the run but I can always get better at that as well. Playing the run it's all about effort. It's something I can definitely do."

Typically, backups make the final 53-man roster due to their play on special teams. Yet the Bears use a constant defensive line rotation throughout every game, meaning evaluations on linemen are weighted toward their ability to be disruptive on defense. That makes this final preseason game of vital importance for a player like Ozougwu.

"It's important," he said. "Every time you have an opportunity to play, you want to put out your best effort. I'm taking this game like I take every other game. I'm going to play hard and just play my butt off."

The goal for each of these players is to show Marinelli he can be a vital part of the D-line rotation. If Rod isn't impressed, you'll be one of the 22 players to be cut this Friday.

"It's tough on these guys," said Marinelli. "I always use the term, ‘Three dogs, one bone,' and they're fighting. They've got to go out and compete. I have great respect for what they have to go out and do. It's the highest level of competition you can get."

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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.

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