The Chicago Bears will be without the services of Henry Melton (ACL tear) for the remainder of the season. At first blush, that's a potentially damning injury for Chicago's defense, as Melton is a Pro Bowl defensive tackle. When he's on his game, he's borderline unblockable.
Yet through three games this season, Melton has not performed to expectations. His loss is significant but when you consider the way Nate Collins has played, it may not be as harmful as most first believed.
Melton is a quick, 3-technique pass rusher but he has struggled against the run throughout his career. In that way, he was often a one-dimensional player on the field, especially this year. With Collins, the Bears have a starter who can play either the 3-technique or nose tackle, which gives coordinator Mel Tucker a lot of flexibility.
Let's go to the film room to analyze Collins' strengths at both positions.
Here we have Collins lined up in the left B gap, across from guard David DeCastro.
Collins bursts off the ball and leverages DeCastro's outside shoulder.
Once DeCastro commits outside, Collins lets loose a spin move to the inside.
Collins' quick spin move leaves DeCastro in his dust, giving the defender a free path to the quarterback.
Collins rocks Ben Roethlisberger, forcing the quarterback to get rid of the ball early.
Collins at 3-technique: This play shows Collins' quickness and agility. He presses hard outside at the snap, setting up DeCastro, and then uses great footwork to spin past the offensive lineman. The 3-technique's job is to penetrate gaps and be disruptive in the backfield. Obviously, Collins has the ability to accomplish such a task.
Here again we have Collins in the left B gap. The Steelers will attempt to execute an A-gap blast with running back Jonathan Dwyer.
Collins is immediately double teamed at the snap but his explosion off the ball allows him to gain leverage, even against two blockers.
DeCastro peels off to the second level, which is just the opportunity Collins needs. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert attempts a reach block but he can't stop Collins, whose legs never stop churning, from driving inside.
Here we see Collins laying on top of Dwyer after bringing the ball carrier down for a one-yard gain.
Collins at nose tackle: You don't see a lot of defensive tackles that can execute a rapid spin move to pressure the quarterback on one play, then fight off a double team and stuff a run play on the next. Yet that's exactly what Collins did to the Steelers late in last week's contest. On this snap, he shows great power and explosion, fighting off a double team to make the play at the line of scrimmage.
Collins provided great depth for the Bears before Melton's injury. Yet depth should be the only worry for Chicago's coaching staff, as Collins should be able to fill in admirably as the club's starting defensive tackle in 2013.
BONUS PLAY (Paea Time)
He doesn't light up the stat sheet but no Bears defensive lineman has been as stout as Stephen Paea this year. His work inside through three games has been nothing short of brilliant. Like Collins, Paea can rotate at both DT positions. He's able to pressure the QB on passing downs, yet the run is where Paea's bread is buttered. Here's one play from last week that shows how dominant Paea has been at nose tackle.
Paea diagnoses the play instantly and uses his power to shuck Foster to the inside, keeping the blocker at arm's length. At the point of attack, notice how far Melton (white) has been pushed out of the hole already.
Paea then sheds the blocker and positions himself to make the run stuff. Melton is now even further away from the hole.
Paea is able to grab Jones by the waist and begins hauling down the ball carrier. Jones has now put all his attention on Paea, so he doesn't even see Major Wright (blue) coming in for the hit.
Wright lays a vicious blow on Jones that knocks the ball free. Only then does Melton finally shed his block and pounce on the football.
Paea vs. Run: It's takes an incredibly strong player to cross the face of an NFL offensive lineman, then shed the block and still make the tackle play-side. On this play, Paea makes it look easy, which leads to the turnover. If he continues to play at a high level, and Collins continues to improve, the Bears may end up being better off without Melton.
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.