Too often, defensive ends in the NFL are judged solely by their sack totals, but there's more to the job than getting to the quarterback. The Bears' Alex Brown has never had more than seven sacks in any of his six seasons, and he had just 4.5 in 2007. But his value to the team was demonstrated in the offseason, when he was rewarded with a two-year extension through 2013 that will pay him $15.5 million in new money.
Brown says just because he's never approached double-digit sack numbers, it doesn't make him a bad player.
"You play maybe 500 plays a year and you get 10 sacks," Brown said hypothetically. "That means you've got 490 other plays. What did you do on those plays? Did you give up a 40-yard run? Did you not do your job? Just ‘cause you get 10 sacks, yeah, they're huge plays, don't get me wrong. But there's a lot more to football than sacks."
Last year, for the first time since the midway point of his rookie season in 2002, Brown was not a starter. His right end spot, the one usually associated with big sack numbers in the NFL, was given to Mark Anderson. As a rookie in 2006, Anderson racked up 12 sacks as a situational pass rusher and backup to Brown and left end Adewale Ogunleye.
Bears coaches downplayed the demotion, pointing out, correctly, that the team utilizes all three ends almost equally and considers all three to be starting-caliber players. But the bottom line for Brown was that he wouldn't be on the field when the game started, and he was clearly aggravated.
On the first day of training camp, he signified his mood by wearing a tee-shirt with a picture of "Grumpy," one of the seven dwarfs. He vented briefly early in camp and then went out and played maybe the best football of his career. Only Ogunleye had more tackles than Brown among the Bears' defensive linemen last year.
Brown tied for first on the team with 5 pass breakups by batting balls down at the line of scrimmage, and he was tied for second with 5 tackles for loss, forced 2 fumbles, recovered 2 fumbles and also had an interception.
Now he's back in the starting lineup, and his bubbly personality is back, too. But he admits last year's experience brought him face to face with his professional mortality.
"Just because you're a starter doesn't mean you're going to start the next day or even the next year," he said. "It's going to end one day, and it very well could have ended for me as far as starting last year. Mark played great his first year. But nobody really played great last year. You can't just put it on Mark, but I was fortunate to get another opportunity to come back and (start)."
Anderson's sack total dropped from 12 to 5, and he's back in his original role. Brown's also back in his old role, but with a new perspective.
"It can be taken away just like that," he said. "I don't believe I ever got complacent. I never got comfortable, but I kind of expected to start, and you shouldn't. You shouldn't expect anything. Granted, I did have my best (sack) year (with 7) in ‘06, and I lost my job. Things happen for a reason, but I'm not real sure why that happened. But everything's good now. Last year is last year."
The "Grumpy" tee-shirt hasn't been seen all summer, and neither has the withdrawn Alex Brown. He'd be a contender for the Mr. Congeniality award. The best dwarf to describe Brown's current mood has to be "Happy."
"I'm pretty excited about how everything has worked out with everybody," Brown said. "Not just myself but you've got (contract extensions for) Desmond (Clark), ‘ Lack' (Brian Urlacher), (Devin) Hester and Tommie (Harris). All the off-the-field stuff is worked out. Now we've just got to go play, and with the defense we have, we should be the best in the league. We should be. I bet we will be — just watch."
If the defense plays as well as Brown thinks they will, he may even get to that elusive and magical sack number. "I don't really care if I ever get 10 well, actually I do," he said. "I would love to get 10 just so people can't say, He's never gotten 10 sacks.' They could leave that alone. But I do a lot of other stuff and I take pride in that. You can get pressure on a quarterback, and he throws an interception. The defensive end never gets any credit for that, but as a team we got an interception. That's what we want."
Williams was supposed to assume the left tackle position soon but, if it happens this season, it will definitely be later. And Metcalf was the starting left guard when he went down.
So journeyman John St. Clair remains at left tackle, and Josh Beekman, last year's fourth-round draft pick, is the left guard du jour.
Beekman played in one game last season briefly. St. Clair hasn't been a full-time starter since 2004, and even then he played in the usually-less-challenging right tackle spot.
Beekman spent much of the off-season and the early part of training camp backing up six-time Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz, but he's back at the spot where he started 34 games for Boston College, and he's getting a crash course.
Beekman started and played all of the preseason opener last Thursday, which is almost unheard of these days. He'll take all the reps he can get.
"I'm still a rookie in my mind," Beekman said. "I still have to prove myself. These guys that I work with every day, they've been doing this in their sleep since I was a little kid, so if I have to play a whole game, then so be it."
Beekman spent an extra 20 minutes after Sunday's two-hour practice working on his technique under the scrutiny of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, assistant offensive line coach Luke Butkus and Kreutz. He knows he's getting an opportunity that isn't ever guaranteed, so he's doing all he can to capitalize.
"I embrace it fully," the 6-2, 310-pound Beekman said. "This is a situation that could possibly happen in the (regular) season. I remember when Ruben Brown (the Bears' starting left guard from 2004-07) said, ‘There are going to be seasons when a guy never gets hurt, and there's going to be a season where everybody could get hurt, so you have to be ready.' I just want to do more positive than negative out here on the football field."
Beekman did enough in his extended play last Thursday to be given a shot to win the spot that could be an Achilles' heel for the Bears all season if someone doesn't step up in a hurry. He says one of the most valuable resources in his quest for knowledge is Kreutz.
"Olin's been in this league 11 years," Beekman said. "That's just an honor unto itself. Think about it; six Pro Bowls. He must be doing something right. So every time he speaks, I'm silent, and I listen, and I try to soak it up like a sponge."
If Williams hadn't been injured, he may have already claimed the left tackle spot from St. Clair, who doesn't have nearly the upside potential that the rookie possesses, but he has the experience of 91 NFL games, including 39 starts, although just six of them have been at left tackle.
The Bears never really got a chance to see what they had in Williams, but they know what they've got in St. Clair.
"I'm sure Chris is going to be a great player, and he was working hard, but we never really had him, so I don't know what we lost," Kreutz said. "John St. Clair's been our starting left tackle (since the off-season), and he's been there from Day 1. So we have all our starters and we're ready to go.
"As an offensive line, you don't have to have one great player. You just have to be good together."
It remains to be seen if the Bears can build a winning hand from the current personnel.
Coach Rod Marinelli wanted to sign free agent Takeo Spikes to play strong-side linebacker. Spikes visited Detroit, the Lions put an offer on the table and Spikes signed with San Francisco.
So now what? The Lions have been trying to upgrade linebacker for months. They tried to trade for Jonathan Vilma, but the Jets traded him to the Saints instead. They kicked the tires on free agents Al Wilson and Dan Morgan, but didn't sign them. They targeted Jerod Mayo in the draft, but New England nabbed him first and they settled for Jordon Dizon.
Now the Lions have some decisions to make. Ernie Sims is established on the weak side. But who is going to play the middle? And will anyone move from the middle to the strong side?
Defensive coordinator Joe Barry said the Lions have no plans to move over any of their middle linebackers; Paris Lenon, Buster Davis or rookie Jordon Dizon. At least not yet.
"We haven't even talked about that," Barry said. "Now, three weeks is a lot of time. Things could happen."
The Lions must cut their roster to 53 players Aug. 30 and open the regular season Sept. 7 at Atlanta. "The likelihood of us keeping three middle linebackers is low," Barry said. "So I don't think we'll be stacked there when it comes to cutting time.
"However many linebackers we keep — six or seven — those will be the best six or seven linebackers. And the three guys that start will be the three best linebackers that we have on this team."
The Lions have Alex Lewis, Leon Joe and Darnell Bing on the strong side, with Sims, Anthony Cannon, Gilbert Gardner and Tyrone Pruitt on the weak side.
The ideal scenario: Dizon wins the middle linebacker job, and Lenon moves to the strong side. When the Lions were looking at middle linebackers in the off-season, it was with the idea of moving Lenon.
The Lions think Lenon could switch to the strong side easily. The problem is that the middle linebacker position is so demanding and Dizon is so inexperienced.
Barry was asked why the Lions don't move Davis or Dizon to the strong side now, so one of them can get as many reps as possible at the position.
"There's some people that dual-train their linebackers," Barry said. "I'm not from that school. If a kid has a thousand reps in training camp, I want him to get a thousand reps at one position."
Perhaps the Lions want to give Dizon every opportunity to learn middle linebacker and win the job, at least eventually. It's also easier to go from the middle to the outside than the other way around.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If Randy Moss catches a ball on me, that's expected. But I'll tell you what: He's going to have to work damn hard to catch it on me." LB Buster Davis, on playing the middle at 5-foot-9.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The Packers enter the most critical juncture of the preseason with serious concerns about what's been unfolding with their offensive line, particularly in the interior.
The return of center Scott Wells to the starting lineup after he missed the preseason opener because of a back injury gave way to a collective bevy of pass-protection breakdowns in Green Bay's 34-6 loss at San Francisco on Aug. 16. Packers quarterbacks were sacked six times, with starter Aaron Rodgers taken down on four occasions in the first half.
"Protection wasn't very good," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "It looked like (the 49ers) had push in the pocket consistently. It's something that was a common thread through the game.
"I thought the 49ers played with better pad level than us. I was not pleased with our pad level and our footwork throughout the game. I thought they were more physical than we were. I need to get that fixed. I did not have the team prepared, and we will get that done this week."
With McCarthy set to play his starters into the second half in preseason game No. 3, Friday night at Denver, the Packers are no closer to being solidified with their starting guards than they were when training camp opened in late July.
Jason Spitz, the incumbent starter at right guard, had a brutal performance in making the switch to left guard against the 49ers. He was responsible for at least two of the four sacks of Rodgers. Spitz's letdown came after McCarthy praised him last week for being the offensive line's most consistent player last season.
Rookie Josh Sitton, who started for the second straight game at right guard, failed to hold up a block that resulted in another Rodgers sack. Wells also wasn't spared blame for a heavy dose of pressure felt by Rodgers, who was knocked down three other times.
As the Packers inch closer to the start of the season Sept. 8, they're in the same boat they were in the previous three seasons unsettled at guard. "You've got five guys competing for three positions in there," said McCarthy, who included Wells in the mix.
Wells presumably is secure with his job at center, where Spitz started in his absence the first preseason game. Incumbent starting left guard Daryn Colledge and Allen Barbre also are in the running for a starting job. They started camp as the combatants for the job at left guard, until the emergence of fourth-round draft pick Sitton prompted the coaches to move Spitz from right guard.
Colledge played the entire game against the 49ers, spelling Sitton at right guard and then taking over for Chad Clifton at left tackle.
"Ideally, you'd like to have (the starting line set) yesterday, but that's not the case," McCarthy added. "I think those questions will be answered based on how they play."
In defense of the beleaguered interior linemen, Rodgers could have avoided a couple sacks by getting rid of the football.
Indecisiveness was apparent in his second pro start since taking over for the departed Brett Favre. Rodgers completed only nine of 16 passes for 58 yards. He was hurt for the second straight game by drops by his receiving corps tight end Donald Lee let a would-be 7-yard touchdown fall out of his hands in the end zone following a Charles Woodson interception.
Through two games, Rodgers is 18 of 31 passing for 175 yards with one touchdown and one interception. His passer rating is 71.3. He has been sacked a league-high six times.
"We need to find (a) rhythm and figure out what our identity is going to be," Rodgers said after the last game. "Is it going to be spreading teams out? Is it going to be running the football? We just need to get healthy and, hopefully, have a better performance next week."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We just stunk. You can't color it and put it in any other light. We flat-out stunk, and from an offensive standpoint, there's nothing you can say. We flat-out were no good." — Right tackle Mark Tauscher, on the Packers' woeful performance in a 34-6 loss at San Francisco on Aug. 16.