It was reported this afternoon that Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton has a torn ACL and is done for the season. The loss of Melton cannot be overstated. The Pro Bowl defensive tackle has been the main cog for Chicago's pass rush the past two seasons, serving as a disruptive force at the 3-technique position. Without him, the Bears have a huge hole to fill along the defensive line.
There are a few ways to go about filling in for Melton. First, the Bears are going to use a combination of Stephen Paea and Nate Collins as the starting DT duo for the time being. They can each rotate at either the 3-technique or nose tackle. And on top of that, both players have performed at a very high level so far this season, so the drop off there won't be that significant.
Yet beyond those two, the Bears have only Zach Minter, an undrafted free agent who has been inactive the first three weeks. Minter will likely jump onto the active roster next week but it's doubtful he's the answer here. More likely, the Bears will quickly sign a veteran free agent this week to add DT depth. Former Chicago players Amobi Okoye, Antonio Garay and Matt Toeaina are all searching for work. And with the versatility of Paea and Collins, the Bears can keep their options open for either a 3-tech or nose addition.
Also, expect the Bears to consistently slide Corey Wootton or Julius Peppers inside on passing downs to create pressure in the quarterback's face. Both have played a number of snaps at DT the past two years.
Unfortunately for the Bears, the loss of Melton will not ease their salary cap issues, as he's due every cent of the $8.45 million franchise tag under which he was playing. The Bears have roughly $3.5 million left under the cap with which to work.
Duke of Earl
Remember when Earl Bennett had an integral role in the Bears' passing attack? Those days are long gone, or so we thought. Through the first two games, Bennett had caught just three balls for 25 yards. Behind Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Benntt and Matt Forte, Earl has been an afterthought.
Throughout most of last night's contest, the same held true. Bennett was targeted just twice during the first three quarters against the Pittsburgh Steelers, catching one pass for five yards.
Yet, when the game was on the line, Earl came through in a big way. On 3rd and 5 from the Pittsburgh 17-yard line, with the Bears clinging to a four-point lead, Bennett ran a post corner route to the back corner of the end zone. Jay Cutler lobbed the ball over the defender and Bennett made the catch, but he was ruled out of bounds. Marc Trestman challenged the play and what we saw on the replay was a veteran receiver making a fingertip grab while dragging his back toe in bounds. The play was overturned, giving the Bears an insurmountable lead late in the game.
"I threw a receiver route," Cutler said after the game. "We caught man [coverage]. We hadn't caught a lot of man up to that point. They played a lot of three zone and played a little two-cut against us. I was happy to see man. I thought I was a tick late on it but Earl made a heck of a catch in the corner for us."
Bennett is no longer a big part of the offense. In fact, he's hardly more than a bit player being Cutler's fifth option in the passing attack. Yet when his number was called against Pittsburgh, he stepped up.
"Everybody is going to get their opportunity," Bennett said today. "And when it comes, you've just got to take advantage of it."
Bennett will never be a Pro Bowl wideout but his hands and experience will make him a very valuable part of the offense going forward, even if only sporadically.
"It was good to see Earl finally get that touchdown," said Brandon Marshall. "We had a word today in chapel and it was about selflessness and Earl epitomized that. You see a guy take a pay cut and you see a guy who is really a great receiver, a really good receiver and he's not getting the ball a lot. For him to keep his head in the game and make that play for us, it's special. It says a lot about his character."
In his short career, Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery had never caught more than five passes in a single contest. And through the first two weeks of 2013, he had just six total catches. The player who was arguably the most impressive pass catcher in training camp had yet to show up.
Last night, Jeffery made a statement with a career-high seven catches, on eight targets, for 51 yards. The Steelers played a lot of Cover 3 in the game, which took away the deep ball. It involved a soft cushion at the line of scrimmage, which Jeffery repeatedly exploited using stop routes. While the Steelers focused all of their attention on Marshall and Martellus Bennett, Jeffery quietly moved the chains, particularly in the first half when Marshall struggled.
This is what the Bears need out of Jeffery. He doesn't have to be a Pro Bowler – although he's talented enough to do so – he just needs to be a competent No. 2 wideout that can be a weapon when opposing defenses focus too much on his teammates. Last night, he did just that, which helped the Bears jump out to a 24-3 lead.
Williams Makes Presence Felt
There are many folks in and around Chicago who feel rookie Jon Bostic should be starting at middle linebacker over D.J. Williams. After missing all of the preseason with a calf injury, Williams struggled to make an impact in the first two games and looked slow on the field. Last night, he appeared much healthier and quicker and was a key cog in Chicago's blitz schemes.
The team had three sacks on the night and two of them were credited to Williams. The first sack, Williams blitzed through the middle of the offense, found Ben Roethlisberger and knocked the ball out of the quarterback's hands. The Bears recovered and scored a few plays later to take a 10-0 lead.
Later in the second quarter, Williams again came untouched up the middle and exploded into Roethlisberger for the sack. Those two plays set the tone for Chicago's defense on the night and showed how effective Williams can be as a blitzer.
"[My recovery] is continuous," Williams said after the game. "It has only been a month of football. It's the third game of the season. I'm just coming in trying to help the team."
The Bears have needed Jay Cutler to come up big in crunch time through the first three weeks of the season. In each campaign, he has answered the bell, including last night on a game-clinching drive in which he converted three straight third downs. In fact, Cutler has been nearly unstoppable late in the game this year.
In the last five pass plays of Chicago's three contests this season, Cutler has a perfect 158.3 passer rating: 12 for 13, 208 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INT. That's pretty clutch folks.
Pre-Snap Clean Up
Under former head coach Lovie Smith, multiple false start penalties were the norm in each and every Bears contest. It was as predictable as the sun rising in the East. Yet through three games this year, Chciago's offensive line doesn't have a single false-start penalty, which would have been unfathomable under the old regime.
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.