If the Monsters of the Midway want to get back to the upper echelon of defensive units in the NFL, like they were winning back-to-back division titles in 2005-06, then they've got to start putting more pressure on the passer.
Even though they came out on the short end of a 21-15 decision in Week 1 at Green Bay, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked four times and never had an opportunity to get comfortable in the pocket. After looking borderline unstoppable throughout the preseason, Rodgers and Co. only put up 150 net passing yards against the Bears, and 50 came on their final attempt of the game – a scoring strike to Greg Jennings off play action that turned out to be the difference. Rodgers finished with a 92.0 passer rating, which is a solid effort, but it was light years off the video game-like 147.9 he put together in four exhibition contests.
Adewale Ogunleye led the way for Chicago from his left defensive end position, recording two sacks and a handful of pressures as he completely dominated Green Bay right tackle Allen Barbre. Proving that he's more than just a pass rusher, Ogunleye also contributed three solo tackles and an assist on the evening. Having only reached double-digit sacks once in five seasons as a Bear, the former undrafted free agent out of Indiana could be well on his way to a big year up front.
When asked exactly why he had so much success against Barbre at Lambeau Field, Ogunleye said he wasn't so much concerned with what the blocker was trying to do and simply went about his business.
"I guess I really didn't care what he was going to do," Ogunleye said Thursday before practice at Halas Hall. "I was just going to play my game, and that's the way we've been doing the whole preseason [and] offseason, is just dictating our play and not worrying about what the offensive line is going to do. If I just continue to play fast and throw my fastball, then they have to react."
While Bears fans are no doubt happy to see Ogunleye again looking like the player that racked up 15.0 sacks for the Dolphins in 2003 on the way to his one and only Pro Bowl, some cynics out there are wondering where this level of production has been since his arrival in the Windy City the following season – and agreeing to a six-year, $33 million contract.
Well, 2009 just happens to be the sixth and final season of that deal, meaning he'll be a free agent at the end of the campaign.
The NFL isn't as bad as the NBA or Major League Baseball since contracts are not guaranteed, but there is a long list of players that had career seasons in the last year of their deals with hopes of seeing giant paydays in free agency – then failed to live up to expectations. A perfect example in Chicago was Muhsin Muhammad, who set the league afire with 93 receptions for 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns as a Panther in 2004, only to catch 64, 60 and 40 balls from 2005-07 as a Bear. Despite signing him to a six-year, $30 million contract, the Midway Monsters cut Muhammad after three largely disappointing seasons.
Ogunleye hears the critics suggesting that he's extra motivated simply because he wants to get paid again, be it by the Bears or another team, but he's not the only player in his particular situation.
"You can look at it a lot of ways," he said. "There's thousands of players in this league, and I'm sure I'm not the only guy in the last year of a contract. So with that said, I think you've got to be self-motivated no matter what it was."
General manager Jerry Angelo sent a package built around primary receiver Marty Booker to Miami to acquire Ogunleye, and while he's been a solid player on the field and a respected veteran in the locker room, he's only averaged a little more than 7.0 sacks per season as a Bear. While the sack itself may be an overrated statistic, that's how defensive ends are measured at this level. We're not talking about the cornerback position, where an elite player like Nnamdi Asomugha can be a Pro Bowler in 2008 despite only one interception. Nobody ever throws at him. Conversely, big-time D-ends are supposed to put up big-time sack numbers.
At 32 years of age, Ogunleye isn't going to get another multi-year, multi-million dollar commitment from any team unless he puts together a tremendous 2009, but he believes his desire to improve on a down '08 is all the inspiration he needs.
"I was telling somebody yesterday that even if this was the third year of my contract, and I had five sacks year, my fourth year I would want to improve on five sacks," he said. "So that's the biggest key. The contract situation, I've always said we're going to settle that during the year, and I didn't really want to really talk about it because I knew that my play is going to be able to take care of that."
The odds are long Ogunleye will be wearing a Bears uniform in 2010, especially after Angelo invested third- and fourth-round picks on Jarron Gilbert and Henry Melton, respectively, in April's draft, but this D will take any sack it can get these days.
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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
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