Versatility key for Bears defensive line

The addition of Amobi Okoye, as well as Stephen Paea's return to practice, gives coordinator Rod Marinelli the flexibility to mix and match his defensive fronts throughout each game.

The Chicago Bears got a welcomed boost this week with the addition of DT Amobi Okoye, signed in free agency after the Buccaneers waived him. The five-year veteran served well last season as Henry Melton's backup at the 3-technique position, earning 27 tackles and 4.0 sacks.

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli tried out a number of defensive tackles after Okoye signed with the Bucs early this offseason. Nate Collins could be a playmaker but he's an unproven commodity and will be suspended in Week 1. No other under tackle stood out during training camp, forcing Marinelli to slide defensive end Israel Idonije inside on passing downs.

Things had gotten that desperate.

With Okoye now in the fold, the Bears won't be dependant on Idonije in nickel situations, as Okoye can now fill that role. Yet don't expect Marinelli to go static with his defensive linemen, players he rotates in waves throughout each game. Idonije's ability to play two positions gives Marinelli flexibility, but he's not the only player that can move along the defensive line. In fact, almost every defensive lineman on the team can play multiple spots.

Along with Idonije, Julius Peppers also likes to shift around the defensive line. Last season, he often jumped in at defensive tackle, where he had good results. When that happens, Melton typically moves to defensive end, where he played in college.


DT Stephen Paea
Ron Chenoy/US Presswire

Stephen Paea, who missed the last three preseason games with an ankle injury, was back at practice this week and is not on the injury list. He has shown an ability to get penetration at 3-technique, yet also the strength to anchor at nose tackle. He is a key cog in this group and is on the verge of a breakout season.

Collins rotated between under tackle and nose tackle in the preseason, and appeared equally capable at both positions.

Even with Okoye back, Idonije will still move inside in certain situations.

"I'm fortunate that I can do those things," said Idonije. "It's not like I'm just going in cold. I've practiced all training camp in that system going inside in the nickel downs, and we have some other guys that are going to get in there and can just really move it around and not let their line get comfortable with the blocking schemes and what they're doing. I think it will work well for us."

Marinelli now has the freedom to choose any DT combination of Okoye, Idonije, Melton, Collins and Paea, or even Peppers, on passing downs.

With Idonije getting reps at tackle, and Peppers likely needing a few plays off each game to deal with plantar fasciitis in his foot, reps at defensive end will be available for Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin. Wootton has shown great explosiveness in practice but it's been a while since he accomplished anything on game day. He should get plenty of opportunities this season to pressure the passer.

With McClellin, the Bears have added versatility. He played outside linebacker in college and is decent dropping into zone coverage. He's not going to shift inside like Idonije and Peppers – he doesn't have the size or strength to do so – but the Bears can use him creatively in zone blitz packages, utilizing his athleticism at the second level.

With all of these different options, Marinelli can mix and match his defensive fronts during each contest. If one group isn't getting requisite pressure, he can slide players around until he finds a front four that creates the best matchup for Chicago's defense.

Besides McClellin, this line is eerily similar to last year's group, which isn't a bad thing. The Bears finished 2011 19th in the league in sacks (33.0). If McClellin provides an upgrade in the pass-rush department, the defense can easily climb into the top 10 in that category.

Marinelli was asked this week why he feels this defense is better than the one last season.

"I think we've developed some additional depth throughout the defense that's really going to [help] – our corners, some inside guys, some ends, some of those things," said Marinelli. "So I think our rotation should help us even a little bit more, and then I think guys playing together and another year understanding the system."

If that added depth and experience along the defensive line ends up paying off, it will take pressure off the questionable secondary and allow Chicago's defense to again reach elite status.

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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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