Corey Wootton is no longer a defensive end. The fourth-year Chicago Bears player started at defensive tackle last week due to Henry Melton's season-ending ACL tear and Stephen Paea's turf toe, which held him out against the New Orleans Saints. And now that Nate Collins has been officially placed on injured reserve, Wootton won't be moving back to defensive end any time soon.
"Injuries happen and I just had to step up when they needed me," Wootton said this week. "The NFL is not easy in general. Injuries happen and we have to adjust to it. They've asked me to play a different position, so I've got to do everything I can to give it my all."
Luckily for the Bears, moving inside shouldn't be a difficult transition for Wootton. He played some defensive tackle at Northwestern, took limited snaps there last season and has been practicing DT since training camp this year. Despite being relatively tall (6-6) for a tackle, Wootton's combination of power and explosiveness off the ball have allowed him some success inside, particularly against the run.
It's in pass rush where Wootton must pick up the slack. He has just one sack this season, rushing from defensive end the first four weeks, and did not have a quarterback hit or a hurry against the Saints. His lack of production against the pass, as well as that of Julius Peppers and Shea McClellin, are the biggest reasons Chicago is ranked 30th in the league with 8.0 team sacks.
It won't help Wootton now that he's playing out of position but that's no excuse. If he can't collapse the pocket at defensive tackle, while also being stout against the run, the Bears won't be able to stop anyone defensively. When a team starts getting gashed up the middle, things can spiral out of control quickly. So Wootton needs to quickly adjust to the differences between end and tackle, and get after the quarterback.
"I think the biggest thing is you've got to take a shorter, six-inch step and really get your feet in the ground, because if you take too long of a step, they are really going to get you off balance. It's definitely an adjustment in there but I got the hang of it during the game," said Wootton. "It's just a different ballgame inside. You get a lot more double teams. Guys are shorter and stouter, really good run blockers. The contact happens faster than outside. It's definitely an adjustment."
It's an adjustment the entire team must make as well. This now forces McClellin into an every-down role and he has struggled mightily against the run. It also forces Peppers to play more snaps, which isn't good for a 33-year-old who may be showing signs of slowing down.
If Paea can't play this week due to the turf toe – he's officially listed as questionable – Landon Cohen will get the start. Cohen, a former seventh-round draft pick in 2008, is with his eighth different team the past six years. He's a journeyman who will be asked to play like a starter.
The injuries will also force undrafted rookie Zach Minter into his first game action of the season. The Bears like Minter's potential but have been hesitant to put him on the field to this point, as he's still very raw. Yet the coaching staff doesn't have a lot of options, so we'll likely get our first look at Minter on Thursday against the New York Giants.
The club also elevated Christian Tupou to the active roster today. Tupou is an undrafted free agent who was on Chicago's training camp roster and played in all four preseason games.
Yet none of the Bears' defensive tackle options are ideal. The idea that a converted defensive end, a journeyman and two UDFAs is going to be good enough to provide pass rush and stop opposing rushing attacks is asking a lot. But what can the team do? It's the next man up, a philosophy that pervades the NFL. Unfortunately for Chicago, the next men up aren't all that good.
Wootton is a strong, versatile player who is the truly the only possible savior for the Bears' defensive line at this point. If he doesn't get it done inside, it'll be a long season for Chicago's defense.
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.