In case you haven't heard, the Chicago Bears have just two sacks through the first two weeks of 2013. Based on the reaction in Chicago to this less-than-stellar production, you'd think the sky might hit the ground by the time you finish reading this article.
It's concerning the Bears' defensive line, which was considered one of the team's strengths coming into the season, has been an unable to get to opposing quarterbacks. Yet there are many reasons to believe the group will get significantly better going forward.
First, Chicago's pass rushers are a very talented group. Julius Peppers and Henry Melton are Pro Bowlers, Corey Wootton broke out last season with 7.5 sacks and Shea McClellin has taken big steps this year. On top of that, Stephen Paea is one of the best rushing nose tackles in the league and his backup, Nate Collins, has looked very good in his fourth season.
Yet the production hasn't been there, which is a problem. The Bears have the second fewest sacks in the league, which has taken a toll on the pass defense, currently ranked 17th in the league.
"A lot of times the key is just beating the guy in front of us," Wootton said today. "The first week was a little tough because of the quick [passing]. We only had two opportunities where it was a true five-step [drop]. The second week I thought we did a better job of pressuring [Ponder] and getting to him. But we still need more pressure, more sacks, more production."
Things don't get easier this week against the Pittsburgh Steelers and their two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (6-5, 241), who is one of the toughest players in the league to take down.
"He's definitely a challenge because he's a guy who is built like a tight end or defensive end," said Wootton. "He's tall, big and strong. He actually has really good feet for a guy his size."
Roethlisberger doesn't have much speed but his size and strength allow him to extend plays. Countless defenders have bounced right off him during his nine-year career and it's impossible to say how many passes he's completed with a guy draped around his waist.
"Just his ability to make plays, we have a reel we've been watching, when he scrambles," Wootton said. "You see people that look like they should have a definite sack but he's able to get off of them, brush them off and complete a 50-yard pass down the field. So he definitely brings a challenge about with him."
One of the biggest keys with Roethlisberger, considering his ability to extend plays, is for Chicago's front four to be relentless and extend their pass rush beyond the typical three to four seconds.
"The biggest thing is staying fresh with a guy like him," said Wootton. "The coaches have been saying, ‘If you're tired, get out and let the next man get in there.' Just get fresh rushers running after him and everyone getting to the ball.
"He's a huge guy. He's probably about my size. The biggest thing is you've got to grab around him and hold on to him as best you can and hopefully people will come. But you see sometimes people have him wrapped up, clearly in a sack, and he gets out of it. That's just the strength that he has."
In an effort to improve their individual performances, Wootton and McClellin have both spent extra time the past two days after practice with assistant defensive line coach Mike Sinclair. During his playing career, Sinclair was a three-time Pro Bowl defensive end who racked up 73.5 sack in 11 seasons with the Seahawks and Eagles. His 73.5 sacks are the most in Seattle franchise history.
"We're just working on our pass rush," Wootton said. "Coach Sinclair, he's a guy who played in the league. He just has a lot of knowledge about pass rush. He's been working with me a lot, just on hands, setting people up, things like that. Shea has come along with us afterward. He's just helping us along the way.
"It's stuff that we've been trying out in practice. Different moves. Just teaching us more about pass rushing and setting people up, being able to do one move the first time and set them up the second time. It's stuff we've been working on in practice. You see ourselves improving."
The talent is there but the defensive line has to start producing. If not, the improvement the offense has shown under Marc Trestman won't mean anything. Wootton knows it, which is why he was tough on the D-line when I asked him to grade their performance this year on a scale of 1-10.
"I would say about a four. I don't think we've played up to our potential yet. I think we're a talented bunch. It's still early but I think the biggest thing is we're working hard. We're working on the little things every day. This week we're looking to prove what we can do up front."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. 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.