Defensive end: A-
Julius Peppers has been his usual self this season. As a force off the edge against both the run and pass, he has seen his fair share of double teams and chips this season. Despite that, he still has 2.5 sacks, a tackle for a loss and a fumble recovery. In addition to his duties at end, Peppers has also been sliding inside to defensive tackle on passing downs. His versatility is unmatched. The fact he commands so much attention from opposing offenses has opened up opportunities for the rest of the defensive linemen – the team is third in the NFL in sacks (15.0).
Israel Idonije is healthy this year and it's showing on the field. After dealing with a leg injury last season, resulting in just 5.0 sacks, Idonije is back playing at a starter's level. He has 2.5 sacks already and has been very good against the run. Despite moving to tackle during the preseason, Idonije has seen limited reps inside during the regular season, being replaced semi-regularly on passing downs by Shea McClellin.
Speaking of McClellin, the rookie has proven to be the pure pass rusher the team thought he would be when they selected him in the first round this year. Coming in during nickel situations, he's been able to get consistent pressure using his speed rush. Yet his athleticism and experience at linebacker has allowed coordinator Rod Marinelli freedom in play calling and formations. On a number of occasions, McClellin has been used as a roving linebacker, working behind only three down linemen. He has 2.0 sacks so far, second amongst rookie defensive ends.
Like Idonije, Corey Wootton is finally healthy. As the team's No. 4 edge rusher, Wootton has 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Athletically, he's a beast, and now that he's not dealing with any injuries, he's finally making an impact.
Defensive tackle: B+
In each of the first four games, the Bears have activated just three defensive linemen, using the team's defensive ends as situational rushers on the inside. This has allowed more opportunities for Henry Melton to get after the quarterback. His 4.0 sacks lead the team and are second most in the NFL amongst DTs. In just his second full year as the team's under tackle, Melton has been able to get consistent one-gap penetration on passing downs. Even more promising, Melton has gotten better against the run, an area in which he struggled last season.
Stephen Paea has taken over the starting nose tackle position and has stabilized the middle of the defensive line. His strength and ability to gain leverage inside makes him nearly impossible to move, forcing opposing offenses to double-team him during run plays. As such, he doesn't blow up the stat sheet but his contributions have been invaluable. He's one of the main reasons the defense is ranked third against the run. Yet he's also been solid rushing the passer, racking up six hurries so far, the most of any DT on the roster. Paea has been so good, he has made Matt Toeaina, the starting nose tackle the past two seasons, dispensable. Toeaina has been de-activated the last three weeks.
Amobi Okoye rotates in on passing downs, either for Melton or alongside him. He's a one-gap 3-technique who is effective getting after the quarterback. Despite limited reps due to sitting out in Week 1, he already has four tackles and a sack. A former first-round draft pick, Okoye is a solid member of the defensive tackle rotation.
Brian Urlacher's left knee, which he sprained in the season finale last year, still isn't 100 percent. He hasn't shown his signature speed, has trouble changing directions and cannot plant on the leg when taking on blocks. As such, he's playing at roughly 75 percent, but that number is climbing. It's a slow process but Urlacher is getting slightly better each game. It's unlikely his knee will ever be the same but if he can continue to improve as the season progresses, he should be at close-to-full speed for the final playoff push.
His partner, Lance Briggs, has picked up the slack. He leads the team in tackles (25) and tackles for a loss (2), and is second with four passes deflected. He's also forced a fumble and intercepted a pass, which he returned 74 yards for a touchdown against Dallas. He'll be 32 next month, yet Briggs is still playing at an elite level and has taken over as the heart of this defense.
On the strong side, Nick Roach comes off the field on passing downs, so he'll never accumulate the stats of Urlacher and Briggs. Yet Roach has been a rock alongside the two future Hall of Famers. He has 10 tackles, one for a loss, and a sack.
Tim Jennings is playing at a Pro Bowl level right now. After being forced to earn the starting gig this offseason for the second year in a row, Jennings has exploded out of the gates. He's playing with an obvious chip on his shoulder. His confidence level is sky high, allowing him to be very aggressive when the ball is in the air. Jennings leads the league in interceptions (4) and has deflected nine balls, three of which resulted in Bears picks. Chicago leads the league in interceptions (11) and turnovers (14), and Jennings is the main reason why. Through four games, he's easily the club's defensive MVP.
Charles Tillman has quietly gone about his business this year. Coming off his first Pro Bowl last year, Tillman still has plenty left in the tank. He has 16 tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception, which he returned 25 yards for a touchdown. He's the veteran leader in the secondary and has again been a rock out wide.
Nickelback D.J. Moore is fourth on the team in tackles (19), to go along with three passes deflected and an interception. Yet despite the solid numbers, his play this year has been sub-par. Moore has been beaten on a number of big plays and opposing quarterbacks have a 108.2 when passing at him (compared to 15.9 for Jennings and 41.2 for Tillman). After not allowing a TD all last year, Moore has already given up two. With NFL offenses deploying three-receiver sets at an unprecedented rate, Moore needs to get better out of the slot.
Something has clicked for Major Wright this season. A talented, athletic player, Wright made countless mental mistakes during his first two years in Chicago. He was getting beat deep and missing tackles. He has remedied those issues and has been consistently good through the first four weeks. His three interceptions, one of which he returned 45 yards for a TD, are second best in the league. His 20 tackles are second on the team. If Wright continues to develop the way he has during the first quarter of this season, he could finally reach his potential in the near future.
Wright's partner, Chris Conte, has been almost as impressive. In just his second season, Conte has been rock solid on the back end. He doesn't allow receivers to get behind him and is strong in run support. He struggles at times in man coverage – opposing quarterbacks have a 107.0 passer rating when throwing at him – but he's a weapon in Chicago's Cover 2 shell. Conte still makes the occasional mental mistake but as a 23 years old, he's looking more and more like the club's long-term answer at free safety.
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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.