The bad news for the Chicago Bears is that Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton is done for the season with an ACL tear. The good news is that Nate Collins has outplayed Melton through the first three weeks of the 2013 campaign.
According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Collis has played 89 snaps this year and has the second highest overall grade amongst Bears defensive linemen, behind only Stephen Paea. Collins has three quarterback hurries and a QB hit.
Melton has played 125 snaps and PFF graded him the worst D-lineman on the team, with just two QB hurries, no quarterback hits and zero sacks. That's not to say that Melton wouldn't have turned things around, as he's arguably the most athletic defensive tackle in the league. Likely, he would have eventually raised his level of play and performed as he's done the past two years, during which he has 13.0 combined sacks.
No matter how poorly he's played through the first three games, Melton will not be easy to replace. So far though, it appears Collins is up to the task.
"Henry reached out to me. Me and Henry are really tight," Collins said today. "He told me, ‘This is something that happens to guys, and you just have to be ready and take advantage of it.'"
It's been a wild ride for Collins the past year and a half. After two unproductive years in Jacksonville, the Bears signed him during the 2012 offseason to compete for the club's fourth defensive tackle spot. Collins beat out four other players for the job and was activated midway through last season. Since then he's been a regular member of the defensive-line rotation.
"I've been on the field, and this is really no different for me," said Collins. "I just have to go out there and make the plays I need to make, and continue to just play well like I've been doing."
Collins faded down the stretch last year, and was even de-activated in the final regular season contest. Yet this season, he's made huge strides, routinely getting the better of opposing blockers and completely justifying his PFF grade. Collins credits his improvement this year to new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, whom he played for in Jacksonville.
"Coach Tucker is a guy who's always been on me, even since I was in Jacksonville," Collins said. "As soon as I got there he told me he liked the way I always hustle and try hard, and that's like half the battle with trying to get guys going. He's put it in my head that if you can rush the passer, you can always find a job in the league. He's always been on me; he stays on me. He's been the same guys ever since I met him in Jacksonville."
Tucker believes Collins can be successful in his new role as a starter.
"He's come a long way. He's done a great job. He's very dedicated. Football is very important to him. His teammates are very important to him. He works hard each and every day to get better and he has improved," said Tucker. "He's a high-effort guy, a high-energy guy. Stout. He's got a relentless mentality. Has a good pad level. He's got a chip on his shoulder. I really like him."
Collins also adds versatility to the defense, as he can play either the 3-technique or nose tackle positions.
"I may be a little undersized (6-2, 296) but in some situations, playing inside that phone booth at nose tackle, it's an advantage as long as I keep my pads down and use my leverage," Collins said. "
It remains to be seen how Collins will perform in place of Melton but there's no question Chicago's coaching staff believes he can get the job done.
"The [defensive tackles] act as one," coach Marc Trestman said. "So No. 1 is you've got to have the right fits in the run game. You've got to make sure you're aware of what your assignments are on twists and different kinds of coordinated rushes that we have. So that's critically important. Nate's done that. He's been in there since the OTAs. He's familiar with what we're trying to accomplish and he's an active player. He's got a high motor, he moves around well and we expect he'll do well."
Collins is also confident.
"It's just a next-man-up mentality," Collins said. "Nothing really changes for me. I've just got to read my keys and continue to help this team win. I've just got to stay in my gap and do what I do every week, just go out there and play hard and run to the football and be physical."
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.