The Chicago Bears re-signed defensive tackle Amobi Okoye a week before the 2012 season started. Playing with the team last season, Okoye racked up 4.0 sacks. Combined with fellow DT Henry Melton's 7.0 sacks, the duo's 11.0 sacks were most by a defensive tackle combo since 1995.
Yet Okoye has been a disappointment so far this season. In five games, Okoye has just six tackles and one sack, which came in Week 2. For the most part, he's been relatively invisible on game days.
As a result, the Bears this past Sunday chose to sit Okoye and activated Nate Collins in his place. Collins, a third-year veteran who spent his first two season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, was signed this offseason to a one-year deal. He was suspended for the season opener for violating the league's substance abuse policy and has been inactive for each game up until yesterday's contest against the Carolina Panthers.
"Each week we normally dress seven defensive linemen. We have 10 on the roster. So three aren't dressing," said coach Lovie Smith. "I just think if you practice well, which Nate Collins has been doing — giving a great look. And we think he's a pretty good player. He just hasn't had the opportunity to play.
"Amobi Okoye has been doing some good things — not his best work the last couple of weeks. So it was as simple as that. Nate had a better week of practice. Deserved an opportunity to get that uniform and he did some good things in the game."
It was an exciting moment for Collins to finally get on the playing field, as he hasn't seen live game action since last year. He said the coaching staff told him earlier in the week he would be active.
"I knew at the beginning [of the week]," Collins told Bear Report after the game. "It was really an exciting week for me. I was just trying to keep my emotions bottled up because I haven't played since last year at the end of the season in Jacksonville."
With only three defensive tackles active against Carolina, Collins got plenty of reps in Chicago's come-from-behind 23-22 victory.
"I think I did all right. I feel like as a whole our defense stuck in there. It's not your typical game. There was a lot of yards out there. At the end of the day, you're trying to get the W and that's what we did. We fought until the end. It's a great feeling."
Collins made an impact on the field almost immediately. On his first snap, he was able to penetrate into the backfield and flush out Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Unfortunately for Collins, Newton was able to slip out of his grasp.
"I should've got [the sack] man. I should've got it," Collins said. "I felt like I beat the guard with speed. Cam, he has a good pocket presence. It was his blind side but he just felt me and he took that first step away from me right when he could. He played a good game."
Collins finished the game with three tackles to go along with his one quarterback hurry. The question now is whether or not Collins has overtaken Okoye as the team's third defensive tackle or if this was a one-time switch.
"That's up to the coaches," he said. "It's one of those things. I felt like I've just been working my [butt] off in practice and getting better and getting used to Bear football. It was a new program, a new system for me. I felt like I was doing well, making strides in practice. I just wanted to transfer that over to the field and do what I can to help this team win."
Collins is a versatile player who has quickness enough to play the one-gap under tackle, as well as the size and strength to rotate at nose tackle.
"I played both but I wasn't really counting. I'll know on Tuesday when we get back to practice. Coach always tells the guys on the D-line you've got to learn all the positions. It doesn't really matter where I'm at, I'm just trying to play my best when I'm out there, period."
In giving him playing time, the Bears likely wanted to see what they had in Collins. It remains to be seen whether his performance Sunday was strong enough to warrant further game-day activations. One thing is for certain: Okoye is on notice. If he doesn't pick up his game, a young, hungry player in Collins is ready to take over his role in Chicago.
"It was good to be out there and helping my team, especially in a win like this," said Collins. "A true team win. A 60-minute win. It felt good."
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.