The Chicago Bears are second in the league with 8.0 team sacks this season, behind only the Green Bay Packers (11.0). The leader of Chicago's pass rush so far has been defensive tackle Henry Melton, who has 3.0 sacks through the first two contests.
Melton is the team's under tackle, whose main job it is to get one-gap penetration in the face of opposing quarterbacks. When the under tackle, or 3-technique, is able to collapse the pocket, the Cover 2 defense can thrive. It's the reason Lovie Smith has called the under tackle the most important position on his defense.
"The under tackle drives the defense," defensive end Corey Wootton said today. "So far [Henry] has really been doing that."
Melton is explosive off the ball and has very active hands. He's smaller than your typical defensive tackle – he's listed at 6-3, 295, but I'll give my right arm if he weighs more than 280 – which gives him added quickness in the trenches. Having played both running back and defensive end in college, Melton has the requisite athleticism to be a force as a pass rusher.
DT Henry Melton
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire
"He's young, he's explosive, he's always in the backfield," Brian Urlacher said.
So far this year, he has lived up to his potential. Yet this is an all-too familiar scenario, one that played out last season as well. Through the first three games of the 2011 campaign, Melton was leading the team with 3.0 sacks. He then went through a prolonged slump and didn't pick up another sack until Week 10.
"I came in real under the radar last year," said Melton. "Teams did start noticing what I was doing. I got double teamed sometimes but you really can't make any excuses. You've just got to make your plays."
For more than a month his play was so poor that Lovie Smith was compelled to call him out through the media. For a player's coach like Smith to publicly throw you under the bus, you know you're underperforming.
So Melton's goal now has to be to build on his quick start and show consistency, something he believes he can accomplish due to the experience he gained last season, his first as the full-time under tackle.
"It's just having another year underneath my belt," said Melton. "Just knowing really what's going to go on the rest of the year and how they're going to play me and how we're going to play other teams."
Trench players take a physical pounding throughout each season. Those that show consistency are the ones who can stay mentally strong during the grind. That is Melton's challenge.
"It's mostly mental," he said. "Especially playing [defensive tackle], you get torn down physically. Then you've got to stay on track mentally to keep yourself in shape and keep making plays."
Melton bounced back late in 2011, finishing the campaign with 7.0 sacks, the third most in the NFL amongst defensive tackles. If he stays consistent this season, there's no reason he can't lead the league in sacks at his position, while also serving as the engine for Chicago's defense.
"I really think the sky is the limit for a guy like him," said Wootton.
"He'll be great all season long," Urlacher said. "Hopefully he stays healthy and keeps doing what he's doing. He's a good football player and just creates havoc in the backfield.''
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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.