Among the laundry list of injured Chicago Bears are two key starters on defense: defensive tackle Henry Melton and cornerback Tim Jennings. Melton injured his collarbone and missed last week's game, while Jennings hasn't played since Week 13 with a shoulder injury.
Factor in the injury to Brian Urlacher and the Bears have been without two to three of their best defensive starters the past two games. Not surprisingly, both were losses. Chicago has lost three straight overall and five of their last six. Facing a must-win game this week against the Arizona Cardinals, the defense could really benefit from the return of two of its biggest contributors.
Despite missing the past two contests, Jennings still leads the NFL in interceptions (8), while Melton's 6.0 sacks are third most amongst defensive tackles. Jennings finished with the most fan Pro Bowl votes for NFC corners, while Melton finished with the second most fan votes for NFC defensive tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, Melton ranks as the sixth best defensive tackle in the league this year, while Jennings is ranked 7th at corner.
Getting those two back would be a huge boost heading into Chicago's final two-game stretch, yet neither player could say today whether or not they would be ready to go come Sunday afternoon.
"My body feels well enough to continue playing at a high level. I just want to definitely make sure my shoulder is where it needs to be, strength and flexibility wise, to go out there and help contribute and help the team win," Jennings said. "I know if I feel like I can't help them at all, then I'm no good out there."
CB Tim Jennings
Jennings said the injury won't require surgery as long as there's no further damage, which is why he's not going to rush back out on the field.
"That's why we're going to do everything possible to make sure it stays in place; continue to rehab, continue to strengthen it. Make sure that I feel comfortable before going out there," said Jennings.
Melton is also taking the wait-and-see approach.
"We're going to see," said Melton. "We're going to work through practice today, and then we're going to take the next step and see if I'm ready to go."
He said he suffered the injury two weeks ago against the Minnesota Vikings when he stumbled over a pile of players.
"I was being sloppy and I fell on my shoulder … on the turf in Minnesota," Melton said with a laugh. "It was kind of embarrassing, but yeah, it hurt. I just tripped. I'm way more athletic than that play, so I call it being sloppy, because I was running sideways and I kind of stumbled over a bunch of guys' feet and just fell straight on my shoulder. I was like, ‘Why did I even fall like that?'
Like Jennings, Melton has to consider his long-term health when deciding whether or not to play this weekend.
"I could definitely play through it, but they don't want anything worse to happen to it that would keep me out of the playoffs or something like that. We're going to see how it feels and maybe give it a go."
If the Bears are unable to pick up a road victory this week, the team's chances at making the playoffs are, for all intents and purposes, over. It's a situation neither player foresaw after the team opened the year 7-1.
"It's kind of like two years in a row where you go on a little slide, and you're looking up at the scoreboard wondering, ‘How did we get back in this position again?'" Melton said.
While he said the recent slide has been disappointing, Jennings isn't surprised by the latest turn of events.
"That's just how the NFL goes man," Jennings said. "Everybody is good in this league. You have to be consistent. You just can't be one of those teams that goes up and down because around this time in November, December, January, that's when teams start to get hot going into the playoffs. Unfortunately we're not one of those teams."
If the Bears are going to find a way to win out, they'll need Melton and Jennings to finish out the campaign. And if they make the postseason, both players will play a crucial role in the success of the team come playoff time.
Lance Briggs, for one, wants his teammates back on the field.
"They're two of our playmakers," said Briggs. "Game-changing players. To have those guys on the field is very important. Tim leads the league in interceptions. That right there is a big-time player. And Henry Melton is up there in sacks as well. Those two guys will make a difference this week."
Jennings and Melton both practiced on a limited basis yesterday, along with WR Earl Bennett (concussion), LB Geno Hayes (knee) and DE Shea McClellin (knee). Urlacher and T Jonathan Scott (hamstring) did not practice.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.