By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Here’s the second installment of my 2012 Chicago Bears positional preview, this time featuring the defense.
This is my evaluation of how the Bears have – or haven’t – improved their talent level per position group since 2011, and an overall assessment of each.
(Note: *-denotes rookie.)
Defensive End: Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije, Shea McClellin*, Corey Wootton, Chauncey Davis, Thaddeus Gibson, Cheta Ozougwu
Once the 2011 season got “Hanied”, my focus quickly shifted to the offseason – specifically the draft – and the Bears’ most pressing needs. I maintained they should use free agency to rebuild the offense and the draft to refresh the defense. Defensive end topped my list of draft needs, and the Bears agreed, making Shea McClellin the 19th overall pick in the 2012 draft. Admit it, you weren’t happy when you heard this announcement from Roger Goodell.
Given the Bears’ past preference for drafting athletes instead of football players, the McClellin pick was a bit of a head-scratcher. Especially since seemingly better athletes – Chandler Jones, Whitney Mercilus – were still on the board. To me, the McClellin pick demonstrated that there’s a new sheriff in town – General Manager Phil Emery – who is calling the shots in the draft room.
McClellin carried the “high motor” and “high football IQ” labels, which in scouting parlance typically mean, well, white. I went back and watched McClellin in the Senior Bowl – where he lined up at linebacker – and two things really stood out to me: his lateral quickness, and his sure tackling. Emery admitted he was happy that the Senior Bowl coaches chose to line McClellin up at linebacker, as it prevented other scouts from seeing him rush the passer.
Bears fans and coaches alike hope that the first pick of the Emery-era lives up to expectations and becomes the complimentary bookend to Julius Peppers. Peppers has been worth every penny of the lucrative contract he inked in 2010, typically requiring extra blockers on passing downs, and proving to be very strong in run support. However, after finishing 28th in the NFL in passing yards allowed last season (255 a game) the Bears need more production from their defensive ends.
Israel Idonije returns on a one-year contract, which translates to a prove it season. Idonije’s versatility is a plus, but he’s proven not to be the solution as the No. 2 pass rusher. It’s a make-or-break season for Corey Wootton. Wootton was pre-injured coming out of Northwestern, and has yet to remain healthy for a full season, so the preseason will be huge for his NFL future.
I was tempted to rank this group as a weakness, but Peppers’ presence alone prevented me. If the Bears want to make a Super Bowl push, a secondary pass rusher must emerge in 2012.
Talent level compared to 2011: Stronger
Overall assessment: Neutral
Defensive Tackle: Henry Melton, Matt Toeaina, Stephen Paea, John McCargo, DeMario Pressley, Jordan Miller, Nate Collins, Ronnie Cameron*
Offensive tackle has justifiably been the target of fan ire, but the defensive tackle position is just as worrisome. The Bears defense reached peak performance when they had a dominant three-technique in Tommie Harris. Unfortunately, they’ve yet to rediscover that level of performance since 2008, and are still searching for answers.
The hope is Henry Melton will assume this role and become the disruptive, up-the-field, one-gap (B-gap), undertackle that the Tampa-2 is predicated on. At its foundation, the undertackle becomes a third defensive end on passing downs. By lining up on the outside shoulder of the weak-side guard (a.k.a., the “three-technique”), it makes it nearly impossible for an offensive line to double team the three-technique.
On a defensive line already featuring an end that requires extra attention (Peppers), it’s hard to understand why the Bears didn’t make a more concerted effort to upgrade the competition level at three-technique this offseason.
Melton is entering a contract year, so he should be playing with plenty of motivation. That is what the Bears are banking on, literally and figuratively. Considering it’s only his fourth season playing defensive tackle, he should be cut some slack. But on a team that is built to win now, that rope is pulled pretty tight. Should Melton fail or suffer some sort of ailment in 2012, what is the back-up plan at three-technique? I’ll hang up and wait for my answer.
Matt Toeaina returns as the starting nose tackle, and will be backed up by second-year second-round pick Stephen Paea. Both Toeaina and Paea were slowed down by knee injuries in 2011, so the Bears hope the off-season provided ample rest and rehabilitation. Toeaina is more of a point-of-attack run stuffer, who has never provided much pass rush push.
Paea is the wildcard here. Recall if you will, the Bears traded up to select him in 2011, so he was a targeted acquisition. Paea has admitted to playing last season on one leg, which weakened his base in the running game, and took some of his pass rush explosiveness away. Given the injury, it is impressive that Paea registered two sacks and six quarterback pressures in limited time.
It’s not even worth mentioning the rest of the depth chart.
The Bears are putting all of their eggs in a few baskets at defensive tackle, and it’s not a wise plan. My assumption here is Paea will be in the rotation at both the nose and three-technique, and Israel Idonije will find his way inside on passing downs.
If Paea and Melton don’t pan out, it will be yet another season where Peppers’ effectiveness is minimized due to the lack of a complimentary pass rusher.
Talent level compared to 2011: Same
Overall assessment: Weakness
Linebacker: Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Nick Roach, Geno Hayes, J.T. Thomas, Blake Costanzo, Dom DeCicco, Patrick Trahan, Jabara Williams, Adrien Cole*, Ronnie Thornton*
Every year, I think to myself, this is the year we’re going to see a dip in the performance from future hall-of-famer Brian Urlacher, yet he keeps on going. I was starting to believe Urlacher was part cyborg, that is, until the 2011 season finale.
Urlacher proved to be human after all, when his left knee twisted in a severely unnatural manner against the Vikings. Watching this play unfold made me squirm, but it also made me furious. What was Lovie Smith thinking? Clearly, he wasn’t. Your season was over, and you had nothing to gain but a paltry .500 record, which makes it unconscionable to subject your top-line performers to injury in a meaningless game.
Urlacher was held out of offseason mini-camp which shows his MCL injury was more severe than initially reported. The hope is he will be full-go for training camp. But if he’s not, is it Dom DeCicco time? I’m shuddering at that thought.
Perennial Pro Bowler Lance Briggs got some new paper this offseason, which will keep him in blue and orange through 2014. Even though Briggs has lived in the shadow of Urlacher his entire stint in Chicago, he remains one of the best 4-3 weak-side linebackers in the NFL.
The reliable Nick Roach returns as the starter on the strong-side, but will face competition from free-agent Geno Hayes. Given that Roach plays the two-down linebacker role for the Bears (he is replaced in nickel packages), you know he’s had a decent game when you haven’t heard his name called. Hayes has experience as a weak-side linebacker in the Tampa-2 system, so if he fails to unseat Roach, he will be the primary backup at two spots.
There’s a theme that keeps surfacing here, which is quality talent at the top, then a very large drop-off. Assuming everyone is healthy and stays healthy, the linebacking corps remains the strength of the Bears defense
Talent level compared to 2011: Same
Overall assessment: Strength
Cornerback: Charles Tillman, Tim Jennings, Kelvin Hayden, D.J. Moore, Jonathan Wilhite, Cornelius Brown, Isaiah Frey*, Greg McCoy*
Charles “Peanut” Tillman turned in another solid season in 2011, earning a trip to Hawaii in the process. Tillman’s steady and reliable play has allowed Lovie Smith to evolve as a coach, and match Tillman up against opponent’s top receiving threat. Given the Bears division and their No. 2 cornerback situation, this match-up strategy is a necessity.
Tim Jennings, who signed a two-year contract will be given the first chance to secure the No.2 role, but this year he has actual competition for his job. The Bears made a concerted effort to upgrade the cornerback competition, signing veterans Kelvin Hayden and Jonathan Wilhite, and drafting Isiah Frey and Greg McCoy (which seem to be more special teams oriented).
Bringing in competition makes a lot of sense, as Jennings’ play regressed over the course of the 2011 season. Jennings showed a propensity to bite on double moves, and dropped several potential interceptions. However, his willingness to tackle in run support, and recovery speed allowed him to make up for mistakes. I expect Hayden to pose the biggest challenge, so this should be an entertaining training camp battle to monitor.
DJ Moore returns as the Bears nickel back, where he has been a solid performer for the past few seasons. The opportunistic Moore is the best blitzer on the Bears defense, and just seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
Overall, the talent level at cornerback has been upgraded since 2011. This group is very similar to the wide receivers, in the sense that there’s been an influx of talent, but a reliable, secondary option must emerge.
Talent level compared to 2011: Stronger
Overall Assessment: Neutral
Safety: Chris Conte, Major Wright, Craig Steltz, Brandon Hardin*, Anthony Walters, Trevor Coston*, Jeremy Jones*
Considering the amount of resources the Bears have dedicated to the safety position – in terms of draft picks and trades – this is the biggest failure of the Lovie Smith-era. The Bears have selected a safety in eight straight drafts (last three in the third-round), have traded away, reacquired, then released Chris Harris, and still have more questions than answers at the position.
Major Wright will get the first chance to secure the starting strong safety spot. In two seasons, Wright has been wrong. He has all the physical tools teams look for in an NFL safety, but appears to lack the requisite football instincts. Durability is also an issue for Wright, as he missed time in 2011 with minor hip and ankle injuries. For someone trying to earn trust and prove he can be a reliable starter, Wright needs to have a strong showing in the preseason.
Chris Conte – a converted college cornerback – will start opposite Wright at free safety. The memo to Conte in 2011 was “don’t get beat deep”. Conte got the message, lining up 20 to 25 yards off the ball in single high (Cover-3) alignments. This was effective in keeping teams from beating the Bears over the top – a frequent occurrence when Harris and Brandon Merriweather were the starters – but it compromised Conte in run support.
Conte frequently took poor angles, allowing opposing runners to shake him and hit the cutback lane for big gains. Conte also had back-to-back game changing gaffes against the Chiefs and Broncos. Against the Chiefs, Conte spiked the ball out of Urlacher’s hands into the waiting arms of Chiefs Dexter McCluster on a halftime Hail Mary, and was misaligned on the Broncos game-tying fourth-quarter touchdown. There is certainly room for Conte to grow in 2012.
Craig Steltz will back up Wright, and rookie Brandon Hardin – another converted college cornerback – will back up Conte. Steltz made five starts last year, and while decent in run support, he was regularly targeted in the passing game. In Steltz’s first start against the Packers, he was shown no mercy, as Aaron Rodgers found tight end Jermichael Finley for three touchdowns.
I assumed Hardin would get a chance to compete for the starting strong safety position (perhaps this is the plan for 2013?), but he was lining up at free safety during rookie mini-camp. Hardin has all the size and athleticism you’d look for, but is he a football player?
I am more bullish on Conte than Wright, but this is a weak starting combination at safety, with even weaker depth. In a division featuring some impressive wide receivers, the Bears discipline at safety will be tested regularly. Will they be up for the challenge? I’m not convinced.
Talent level compared to 2011: Same
Overall Position Grade: Weakness
For years, defensive prowess has been a given in Chicago. Let me caution you, that it’s dangerous to take players for granted (ask a Colts fan). And it’s especially dangerous to take players for granted who don’t have time on their side.
There’s a possibility that the new pieces on offense could give the Bears defense a bit of a reprieve this season, which they’ve certainly earned. The days of anxiety-inducing offense, and waiting for the defense or special teams to score points could be a thing of the past. This offense might actually be the reason the Bears win games this year. What a concept!
Depth is the biggest issue facing the defense. As I laid out above, once you get past the top end of the depth chart the drop-off is precipitous. If the Bears get some good luck and avoid injury to key defenders, 2012 could be a very successful season.
And that optimism still scares the crap out of me.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.