With Anderson out of picture, defensive tackle will have more opportunities
By Vaughn McClure, Tribune Reporter
9:01 p.m. CDT, October 7, 2010
Henry Melton gets it.
The second-year Bears defensive lineman fully understands the need for someone other than Julius Peppers to bring consistent pressure.
"When you have Pep getting a lot of attention, getting double-teamed and triple-teamed, for us not to get to the quarterback is disrespectful,'' Melton said. "That's why I'm out there trying to get better; so I can get there.''
Melton, a fourth-round draft pick from Texas, is one of the young players who could benefit from the Bears' decision to cut Mark Anderson. The numbers might not show it, but Melton has been arguably the team's second-best pass-rusher behind Peppers
"I have high standards for this guy, really high,'' defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said of Melton. "He's living up to all the things we've seen in him, with his speed. He has rush ability. He's getting better every week.''
Anderson had plenty of promise, too, but the Bears grew tired of waiting for the former fifth-round pick to recapture his 12-sack rookie form. In fact, the Bears became impatient with a handful of defensive line draft picks under coach Lovie Smith's watch.
Since 2004, when the Bears selected three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris in the first round, the Bears have parted ways with seven of 11 defensive linemen they drafted because of poor performance, injury or off-the-field issues. Two other drafted linemen, Harris and Marcus Harrison (third round of '08), continue to work their way out of the doghouse following slow starts this season.
"You want all your guys to be here, but that's how it goes,'' Smith said of the failed draft picks. "You're really concerned if you don't have those guys and you don't like who you have right now. That would have indicated we could have kept some of those guys around. But we like what we have right now.''
The Bears enter Sunday's game at Carolina with only four sacks: two by Peppers, one by Israel Idonije and the other from linebacker Brian Urlacher. League statistics show the Bears second to last in the league in sacks per pass play.
Maybe youth will help elevate those numbers. Smith envisions an increased role for rookie defensive end Corey Wootton, the fourth-round draft pick from Northwestern who has yet to dress this season. The coach praised Melton, who will remain an inside rusher in nickel situations despite the addition of Charles Grant — a veteran the Bears plan to keep as an edge rusher for now.
Both Melton and Wootton understand the pressure to produce as draft picks.
"There's a reason why they picked you,'' Melton said. "I mean, I came in and not a lot of people knew who I was. There's even more pressure to show that their decision was a good decision.''
After the battering their QBs took from the Giants, Martz expected to shuffle the deck
By Brad Biggs, Tribune Reporter
9:35 p.m. CDT, October 7, 2010
A week after 10 sacks were allowed and two quarterbacks were knocked out, it would be a surprise if the Bears don't shake up the offensive line.
The meltdown in the passing game was not the sole responsibility of the line. The tight ends contributed some shoddy blocking of their own. Jay Cutler could have avoided four or five sacks had he shown better pocket awareness.
But don't expect Mike Martz's blame-it-on-me speech to be the only fallout, besides a battered Cutler, from the hideous performance. Indications are strong the Bears will roll out their third combination of linemen in five games Sunday at Carolina.
Edwin Williams could be promoted over Lance Louis at right guard. Louis suffered a bruised left knee but fully participated in Thursday's practice. J'Marcus Webb is a possibility to replace Kevin Shaffer at right tackle. Both players were worked in against the Giants, and Webb has been getting opportunities here and there as line coach Mike Tice continues to search for the right combination.
Of course I am ready," Webb said. "Even in training camp you are preparing like if someone goes down you are going to be the guy. I'm definitely ready."
The Bears have not had continuity on the line, but they're not going to keep a group that is playing well together just for the sake of keeping them in place. They kept young options, including three linemen on the practice squad, because they want to develop them.
Left tackle Chris Williams did work on the side with a trainer for the second straight day, possibly setting him up for a return next week.
One tough yard: The Bears are 3-for-9 converting third-and-1 or fourth-and-1 situations this season, a symbol of their inability to run the ball and their line struggles as much as anything else. Martz refused to link the struggles to not having a fullback on the roster.
"Not really," he said. "We have to go back and look at what we are doing entirely on those down and distances, make sure we are doing the right things first and it's not a personnel thing."
On fourth-and-goal against the Packers, Martz called a pass play. You could see more of that because running back Matt Forte has also had issues in goal-line and short-yardage situations.
Special stuff:Corey Graham has 10 special teams tackles through four games after making 23 to place second on the team last season. He's on pace to eclipse the 30 Tim Shaw had in setting a franchise record in 2009.
"It seems like we've always had one player who really stood out around here on special teams," Lovie Smith said. "Corey is definitely that guy right now. Every week, he ranks right at the top as far as points are concerned. Play after play, outstanding play by him. Pro Bowl-type play by him at that position so we're pretty excited about that."
Extra points: Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams (illness) returned and had full participation in practice. Wide receiver Steve Smith (ankle), right tackle Jeff Otah (knee) and safety Sherrod Martin (concussion) were held out. … The Bears will wear their navy jerseys and white pants for the game.
Inserting Collins, establishing running game is all Chicago needs to beat Carolina
In the middle of trying to figure out what era of Michigan football Todd Collins played in, a Bears player overhearing the discussion chimed in Thursday at Halas Hall.
"You mean back in the '70s?" Collins' teammate asked with a chuckle.
Truth is, Collins missed playing for coach Bo Schembechler by one season. Collins was a Wolverine freshman in 1990, the year after Schembechler retired, and it was replacement Gary Moeller's promise of a new offense that lured him to Ann Arbor
That was long enough ago to make Collins' age a popular punchline on the day the Bears announced he would start against the Panthers. Jay Cutler is out with a concussion.
The choice of the more proven Collins over the more athletic — and potentially erratic — Caleb Hanie makes sense against a winless opponent where the Bears quarterback will be asked only to not lose the game rather than win it.
Hanie indeed may offer higher rewards with better mobility. But he is also a higher risk given his inexperience making decisions. Whereas Collins represents a safer, smarter option despite any snickers about his 39th birthday looming Nov. 5.
Somebody cracked that Collins has T-shirts older than Hanie. Or he doesn't wear a red jersey during practice; he wears a cardigan sweater. And, no, the Bears didn't end practice early Thursday so Collins could make the early bird special.
There's nothing amusing about losing the franchise quarterback for a game due to a brain injury but, for the most beleaguered 3-1 team in the league, laughing beats crying. Even Lovie Smith took a rare stab at humor when discussing the team's emergency options behind Collins and Hanie.
"We have a guy, or two, in mind. … Who would you go with?" Smith said.
Is Smith feeling OK?
Nobody denies it has been a draining week for the Bears, and not just because of a Giant defeat that included a loss of local confidence thanks to an offensive line that looks worse every week.
The Bears cut an underachieving player, Mark Anderson, a symbol of Smith's anointed-starter status. Then as the Vikings traded for future Hall of Famer Randy Moss, the Bears countered by signing a United Football League castoff, Charles Grant. Then offensive coordinator Mike Martz begged to be publicly flogged for the 10-sack embarrassment and compared himself to John Wayne, though I saw more Terry Shea.
Finally, Cutler couldn't pass the test to get back on the field administered Wednesday night after a light practice by the Bears team doctors and an independent physician.
So why is it recommended to feel good about the Bears today?
For starters, the organization handled the Cutler situation as responsibly as an NFL team in 2010 needs to handle concussions. They followed protocol to make a decision that protects the player and the team long-term — even if it creates short-term uncertainty. They set an example.
Concussions aren't sprained ankles players need to walk off. There is nothing macho about returning to action quickly from a scrambled brain. It's absurd to question the toughness of any player missing action due to a concussion, particularly Cutler. He's been sacked 17 times 14 quarters. The risk of resting Cutler one game is well worth the potential reward of having him for the final 11, especially when the only proven way to treat concussions is idleness.
"There really isn't any treatment so the only thing we can do is let Mother Nature take its course," said David Hovda, director of the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center and a nationally renowned expert on concussions.
The notion Cutler's Type 1 diabetes either made Cutler more susceptible to concussions or slowed his recovery time piqued Hovda's interest but, "there's not any data I'm aware of that connects the two.
"We're just beginning to understand the role of blood-sugar levels and the brain," Hovda allowed. "But I applaud the NFL and the Bears and whoever in the organization made this decision. It's not often you see football decisions made for health reasons."
It's also not often an NFL team gets an opportunity to win a road game without its starting quarterback — the other potential source of encouragement this gloomy week in Beardom.
Expect the Bears to respond. In Jimmy Clausen, the Panthers have a rookie quarterback who so far plays like he flunked Charlie Weis' clock-management course at Notre Dame. Carolina has lost both top receivers, a fact not lost on Bears linebacker Lance Briggs. "We'll get (Clausen's) feet moving," Briggs said. "Give him a lot of welcome-to-the-NFL situations."
Without Cutler, Martz will be less tempted to ignore handoffs. The Panthers only have four sacks, a chance for the offensive line to build confidence. Collins struck the right note by saying, "You've got to make plays to win." But Collins shouldn't force a thing as the Bears establish a running game while he moves the chains with efficient, short drops and quick passes.
In that way Collins may resemble 2005 Kyle Orton more than 2004 Jonathan Quinn. If Collins doesn't — I expect increased practice reps to help — then Hanie is there if the Bears adjust their plan.
That shouldn't be necessary if the Bears successfully take a Three-Yards-And-A-Cloud-Of-Dust approach.
Collins is old enough to remember what that means.
Bears coach Lovie Smith would not divulge who the emergency third-string quarterback would be Sunday when Todd Collins starts with Caleb Hanie as the backup.
It could be Devin Hester or Matt Forte, who could take direct snaps out of the ''wildcat'' formation.
''We have an emergency plan,'' Smith said Thursday. ''Most of the time, you don't get to that third quarterback in a game. Very, very seldom does it happen. But I'll just say without going into that and giving away too much more about our game plan, we have a guy in mind, maybe a couple of guys in mind, if we get down to No. 3. Hopefully we won't get to No. 3.''
No changes for defense
Lance Briggs said nothing changes for the defense even with Collins starting.
''Obviously, you don't want your starting quarterback out but this is football, it could be any player at any time and the next guy has to be ready,'' Briggs said. ''That's the way this thing works. No, I don't want Cutler out of the game. I don't want to see him out. But the facts are he's not going to be playing this week. Todd Collins, Caleb Hanie will get the job done."
Tackle Chris Williams (hamstring) and safety Major Wright (hamstring) did not participate in Thursday's practice. Cutler (concussion) practiced on a limited basis while guard Lance Louis (knee) participated fully.
For the Panthers, ex-Bears linebacker Jamar Williams (neck) sat out practice along with safety Sherrod Martin (concussion), tackle Jeff Otah (knee) and receiver Steve Smith (ankle). Meanwhile, running back DeAngelo Williams (illness) returned to practice.
Peppers was the face of the Panthers' franchise, but return has been subdued
Peppers was the face of the Panthers' franchise, but return has been subdued
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Queen City is the popular nickname for Charlotte, the largest city in North Carolina. But another nickname seems more appropriate as Bears defensive end Julius Peppers prepares for a homecoming Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
During the Revolutionary War, British commander Charles Cornwallis occupied the city but was driven out by hostile residents, prompting him to write that Charlotte was a ''hornet's nest of rebellion.''
Contemporary residents debate whether the five-time Pro Bowl defensive end bolted town voluntarily or involuntarily, a point that's not entirely clear because Peppers insists the Panthers were going to ''do away with anybody who was making any significant amount of money'' and focusing on young players, even though he admittedly was ready to venture elsewhere.
But this much is indisputable: Peppers and his new team -- the 3-1 Bears -- have designs to push the Panthers to 0-5.
''There are going to be some people upset because they feel betrayed,'' said Frank Garcia, a former Panthers offensive lineman who co-hosts a radio program in Charlotte. ''But they forget that there's a business that takes place.
''For the most part, he did a lot for this team and community. But there always seemed to be that sense of underachievement with him because of his potential and his abilities.''
And he was homegrown.
The legend of Peppers grew in Bailey, N.C., where he dominated in football, basketball and track. He took his freakish athleticism to the University of North Carolina, where he earned the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation's top defensive player and played a key reserve role on a Tar Heels team that reached the Final Four.
After a 1-15 season, the Panthers selected Peppers with the second pick in the 2002 NFL draft and immediately reaped the benefits: 12 sacks in 12 games.
In eight seasons with the Panthers, Peppers had 81 sacks but was constantly dogged about his effort -- or lack of it.
''When he was on, he was one of the best in the game,'' said Mark Oakley, who ventured the 80-some miles from Winston-Salem to Charlotte on Thursday on a Greyhound bus to get autographs from players after practice. ''He would tear apart one team, then struggle against some rookie I've never heard of.''
But Peppers, who signed a six-year contract with the Bears that included $42 million in guarantees, has gotten off to a strong start by getting two sacks and drawing several penalties. Meanwhile, the Panthers' pass rush has lacked bite, former defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said.
''Carolina could have had a fairy- tale ending [with Peppers],'' said Buckner, who co-hosts a show with Garcia. ''But I don't think they ever saw this day coming, and they did a bad job of planning for it.
''It's sort of like the captain of the Titanic.''
Like the Bears, the Panthers have four sacks, but they haven't generated nearly as much pressure, Buckner said.
''They don't have anybody who can command any respect in the pass rush,'' said Buckner, who played with Peppers from 2002 to 2005.
Although he was the face of the franchise, Peppers didn't have to be removed off the side of a downtown building like LeBron James. Peppers wasn't interested in endorsements and television appearances.
Drive an hour around downtown Charlotte, and one would be hard-pressed to find faded posters or murals of Peppers -- anything that indicated he'd starred with the Panthers for eight seasons. All the team had to do was replace his image from a merchandise trailer and a truck used for visits to school and community events.
At Sports Fan-Attic at Northlake Mall, Peppers' Bears jerseys are an ''above-average'' seller, store manager Joe Curatolo said. With the Bears coming to town, though, Curatolo placed a rack of Peppers jerseys and T-shirts near the entrance of the store.
''That rack will be empty by Sunday,'' he said.
Still, Curatolo says his top-selling NFL teams are the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys, followed by the Panthers and Washington Redskins.
And while there's interest in his return (a column about him was the third-most viewed story on the Charlotte Observer's website Thursday evening), Peppers hasn't elicited the sort of emotion that Buckner expected.
Buckner blames the Panthers more than Peppers.
''If Carolina was doing a lot better than they are now, it would be a big deal,'' Buckner said. ''But they've got so many problems internally ... that it's sort of been swept under the rug.''
There are no effigies of Peppers, although Garcia got an e-mail from a listener who said he was going to have a ''Peppers Pyro Palooza,'' during which fans would burn his Panthers jerseys.
''But I don't know if it was a joke,'' Garcia said.
Brian O'Regan has owned Panthers season tickets for 10 years, and he would applaud Peppers if he were going to the game, but he has other plans this weekend.
''He's one of my favorites,'' said O'Regan, who added that he owns two Panthers jerseys of Peppers. ''He was a significant reason why the franchise quickly became a winning team. I think the owner has taken the inexpensive route.
''He was a stud, and he's shown it with the Bears. We're going to miss him, and I'm sure he's going to have a huge game Sunday.''
Until seven months ago, Julius Peppers had lived in North Carolina his entire life.
But he won’t be offended if Panthers fans boo him when he and the Bears take the field at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium Sunday.
That’s what fans do, Peppers said. “It’s part of the game. You’re there to boo the opposing team, and I’m not a part of the team anymore, so I understand that.
Peppers grew up about three hours from Charlotte in Bailey, N.C., population 684. He played football and basketball at the University of North Carolina and was drafted second overall in 2002 by the Panthers.
That level of comfort was a perfect fit at the time, he said.
“It allowed me to stay at home and grow a little bit as a person because I still had a strong support system there and a strong circle of friends, he said. “In that aspect it allowed me to grow up as a man more than anything.
By the end of last season, it was clear to Peppers that it was time to go, even after five Pro Bowls and double-digit sack totals in six of his eight seasons. He acknowledges that his relationship with the Panthers “ended a little sour.
According to Peppers, the Panthers made no effort to re-sign him and he was never informed of their decision to let him go.
“I felt it could have been a little more respectful, he said. “At least a phone call. They couldn’t even give me that. They tried to turn the tables and make it look like I wanted out no matter what. (But) I didn’t have the option to stay.
Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said the team offered to make Peppers the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player, but Peppers said those offers came “a couple of years ago.
The Panthers placed the “franchise tag on Peppers before last year, when he made $18.2 million and was the league’s highest-paid player. He wanted the security he got with a six-year, $91.5 million contract from the Bears.
Despite leaving behind his support system, Peppers said he hasn’t struggled with the adjustment to a new team and a new home.
“The transition has been fairly smooth, Peppers said. “Off the field, everything has been smooth. On the field, pretty much the same. There haven’t been too many hiccups. The transition and me getting here has been everything that I expected and it really couldn’t be any better.
His arrival was met with great expectations, but that’s something Peppers has dealt with since he first stepped on a high school football field as a 6-foot-5, 225-pound freshman. It wasn’t long after that that opposing teams started game-planning specifically to stop him.
“I’ve been dealing with this my whole career, so I’m used to it and I pretty much know what kind of things the other teams like to do to take away some of the better defensive ends, Peppers said. “Really it’s a normal thing now. I don’t pay any attention to it.
Despite the schemes, Peppers leads the Bears with 2 sacks and 2 forced fumbles and is second with 5 quarterback pressures. And the numbers don’t fully explain what he has meant to the defense.
“He’s getting held three or four times a game, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “He’s a great athlete, and he’s a phenomenal football player. He sees things happen before they happen, and it’s going to be fun to play behind him.
Peppers is just as happy to be playing in front of Urlacher and Lance Briggs as they are to be playing behind him.
“Those guys are unbelievable, Peppers said. “That’s one of the reasons that I came here was to play on a team like this and to play with linebackers who come downhill and hit people. I’ve admired those guys and the work they’ve done for (almost) 10 years. It’s an honor to be on the same team.
Even though Jay Cutler has been virtually shut down for the remainder of the week and won't play Sunday against the Panthers, Bears coach Lovie Smith isn't concerned that the concussion he suffered last week will keep him out more than one game.
“There's no reason to think that, Smith said. “He's making progress. You guys have seen him around here right now. Hopefully that won't be the case. Of course all we know right now is he's not playing this week. Hopefully he'll be ready to go next week.
Cutler, who also indicated he would be back next week, was at practice Thursday but mostly as an observer. His activity was scaled back after partial participation Wednesday, as Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie did most of the throwing, but Cutler was again listed as “limited, at practice.
“Part of the evaluation process with Jay was coming out and practicing on a limited basis (Wednesday), which he did, Smith said. “After that he met with our medical staff and an independent physician. It was decided he's doing better, but we're going to hold him out of the game this week.
Disaster drill: With only two healthy quarterbacks available Sunday, the Bears will have to prepare an emergency No. 3 QB in case Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie are injured.
“We have an emergency plan, coach Lovie Smith said without naming the player. “Most of the time you don't get to that third quarterback in a game. Very seldom does it happen. Without going into that and giving away too much more of our game plan, we have a guy in mind, maybe a couple guys in mind if we get down to No. 3. Hopefully it won't get down to (that).
If disaster strikes, expect to see a lot of wide receiver Devin Hester and running back Matt Forte taking snaps from the Wildcat formation.
Something special: Cornerback Corey Graham hasn't gotten much playing time on defense with the emergence of D.J. Moore and Tim Jennings as the top backups, but he's playing at an elite level as a special-teams coverage man. Graham's 10 special-teams tackles are tops on the Bears and twice as many as the No. 2 tackler, linebacker Rod Wilson.
“It seems like we've always had one player who really stood out around here on special teams, coach Lovie Smith said. “Corey is definitely that guy right now. Every week he ranks right at the top as far as points are concerned. Pro Bowl-type play by him.
Tim Shaw set the Bears' record for special-teams tackles last season with 30.
By the numbers: Jay Cutler leads all NFL quarterbacks with a 133.4 fourth-quarter passer rating. Among players with 10 or more catches, Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox leads the NFL with 21.5 yards per catch.
Injury update: Right guard Lance Louis went through a full practice Thursday after being limited Wednesday, and he is expected to start Sunday.