In 2012, the Chicago Bears went into the regular season banking on Amobi Okoye to be the club's nickel pass rusher alongside Henry Melton at defensive tackle. The duo produced 11 combined sacks in 2011, the most by a Bears DT pairing since 1995, and a repeat performance was expected.
While Melton again did his part, racking up 6.0 sacks en route to his first Pro Bowl, Okoye fell flat on his face. He earned just one sack through the first six weeks of the season and provided little pressure on the quarterback. He was a healthy scratch in three of the next four weeks and was waived by the club in Week 13. Melton's late-season injury forced the Bears to re-sign Okoye two weeks later but he again proved ineffective.
As a result, former offensive coordinator Rod Marinelli chose to slide Israel Idonije, the team's starting defensive end the previous two seasons, inside to defensive tackle. He started the final four games along the interior and performed very well as a pass rusher.
"[Idonije] had great success both at end and tackle," said Corey Wootton, who replaced Izzy as the starter on the edge. "At tackle toward the end, when Henry and some other guys were out, he was starting and had great production."
According to Pro Football Focus, Izzy accumulated two sacks, two QB hits and six QB pressure in those four starts. PFF also graded Idonije the most complete of any Bears defensive end in 2012. So the fact the club hasn't re-signed him, and have not added any significant DT depth other than journeymen and rookies, has forced the coaching staff to experiment along the defensive line.
To that end, during OTAs this week, the Bears have been moving Wootton inside on passing downs, mimicking what Marinelli did with Idonije last season. This isn't a totally foreign move for Wootton, who lined up at defensive tackle for a handful of snaps last year.
"I actually played in a couple of nickels last year but not very often," Wootton told Bear Report.
Current defensive line coach Mike Phair worked under Marinelli for two seasons and was obviously paying attention to the success Izzy had inside in 2012.
"We've talked about this with coach Phair; just trying to use my length and size inside," said Wootton. "We're just trying to move people around and try and get the four best pass rushers out there at one point in time."
The pass-rush package Phair is deploying consists of Melton and Wootton at defensive tackle, with Julius Peppers and Shea McClellin rushing off the edge. Considering Chicago's roster as it currently stands, that is easily the best possible four-man nickel package.
For Wootton, it's an opportunity to not only help the team in a different way, but he believes the move inside will also improve his edge game.
"I'm just trying to work on it because it's good for my outside rush as well," he said. "It helps quicken up your hands and keep your pad level low because inside it's usually shorter guys. They are stronger and have a quicker punch. Outside, you've got more distance and it's not quite as fast."
Unless the Bears trade for a veteran defensive tackle, or one of the no-name DTs on the current roster emerges as a playmaker, this nickel package appears to be the best route for Chicago to take in terms of pressure on third downs. Wootton is similar in size and skill set to Idonije, and has some experience playing inside. He's also younger and quicker than Idonije ever was, so there's no reason to think Wootton can't excel in this new role.
"I think [I can] because last year in practice I showed that I can rush inside," Wootton said. "Everybody is competing out there and it brings out the best in people."
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.