Bears need to be in a rush to improve defensi
Bears need to be in a rush to improve defensive line
Finding solid under tackle via the draft or free agency should be a top priority
Dan Pompei On the NFL 4:47 p.m. CST, March 6, 2011
To get to the promised land, the Bears are going to have to get to the quarterback first. So an offseason priority is to give Julius Peppers some help.
They might do this by acquiring a defensive tackle. They might do this by acquiring a defensive end. They might do this by acquiring both. But they definitely need to do some acquiring.
All things being equal, a defensive tackle is more appealing. If the most important player on the offense is the quarterback, then the most important player on the defense — the Bears' defense — is the under tackle, or three-technique tackle.
So while Tommie Harris packs his belongings and blows kisses to the masses, a calculated, diligent search is being conducted to find his replacement.
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"The best way to help Pep is if you can get an under tackle," Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "It's so important in our system. It's the motor that drives the train. It gets everything going. If you have an active guy inside, the offense has to be aware of where he is at all times. Then the other guys come alive."
Since joining the Bears in 2009, Marinelli has not had the kind of explosive, consistent under tackle that his defense demands. Harris used to be that player, but he hasn't been since a serious hamstring injury and a knee injury diminished his lower body power.
It's a good year to go looking for pass rush, however. The 2011 draft offers more pass rushers at both tackle and end than any draft in recent memory. There is a chance as many as eight ends and six tackles could be taken in the first round.
"It's one of the better drafts I've seen both inside and outside," Marinelli said of the linemen. "I don't think I've seen a draft like this in 15 combines."
Among the draft prospects who could be considered under tackles are Auburn's Nick Fairley, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Miami's Allen Bailey, North Carolina's Marvin Austin, Louisiana State's Drake Nevis and Southern California's Jurrell Casey. Each could be selected by the start of the third round.
If the Bears strike out in the draft for an under tackle, they also could fall back on free agency. But there is much less to choose from in the veteran market.
About the only intriguing possibility at this point appears to be Cullen Jenkins. The seven-year Packer is expected to leave Green Bay, and he still can play at the age of 30. Jenkins has been playing end in the Packers' 3-4 front, but he has the first-step quickness and ability to disrupt that would translate to playing under tackle in a 4-3. He had seven sacks in 11 games in 2010.
Regardless of who is acquired, Marinelli and the Bears coaches also hope to develop some of their own young pass rushers.
Henry Melton often played the under-tackle position on nickel downs last season, and he is the team's best inside pass rusher for the time being. Melton started out as a 269-pound end, but Marinelli liked what he saw when he tried him in an inside pass-rush drill one night during Melton's rookie training camp. Now, Melton is a 290-pound tackle with quickness and explosion that is rare for the position, Marinelli said.
"It's a hard position to play because you have to max out on every single snap," Marinelli said. "Physically, they get after you. He's still learning that. But he's a good worker. He's fast and he's tough. Athletically, he has everything you could ask for at that position."
Marinelli also indicated he still has hopes for Marcus Harrison, the 2008 third-round pick who was on the inactive list for a dozen games last season. Harrison is gifted, but Marinelli acknowledges he doesn't always play as hard as he needs to.
"You can't put that all on the player though," Marinelli said. "That's part of the coach's job. Whatever is there I have to bring out of him. I'll never give up on him. He'll give up on himself before I give up on him."
The pass rush also could get a lift if Corey Wootton, the team's fourth-round pick last year, continues to develop the way he did late in the year.
"He has good size and speed, and he has a really good motor," Marinelli said. "He really comes after it. I'm excited about him. It's just learning the game."
What could help Wootton, Harrison and Melton more than anything might be the addition of an explosive under tackle.
That should be priority No. 1 for the Bears.