Inside job: Melton key to Bears pass rush
By Brad Biggs
12:25 p.m. CDT, July 17, 2012
Eighth in a 14-part series leading up to the start of Bears training camp.
Under tackle has long been viewed an athletic and disrupting figure in the heart of the Cover-Two defense.
Warren Sapp carved out what will likely be viewed as a Hall of Fame career playing there for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tommie Harris was selected to three Pro Bowls with the Chicago Bears playing the position. But based on the investment in Julius Peppers back in 2010 and now the move to select Shea McClellin in the first round, itís worth exploring if there has been a shift in philosophy up front.
Is it about edge rushers now?
Edge rushers can play in any scheme and the Bears need more from the position this season. But they still look like they have a pretty good under tackle if Henry Melton can take the next step in what amounts to a critical season for him. Drafted as a defensive end from Texas in 2009, Melton got his first experience at tackle in 2010 and really settled into the position a year ago. Melton had two sacks in the season opener against the Falcons and finished the season with a career-high seven ó second on the team behind Peppers.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli believes with an offseason to refine technique, Melton will be even better this season. That would set him up for a handsome pay day and be a boost for the defensive line. Itís a difficult position to play because the under tackle is typically sacrificing size for quickness so you have to find someone strong and powerful enough to still thrive in the middle.
Preview: Melton will be the starter at under tackle and veteran Matt Toeaina returns as the starter at nose tackle. Itís a starting pairing the Bears used 11 games last season but the depth chart behind them has changed considerably. Departed are Amobi Okoye and Anthony Adams and combined they played 863 snaps last season. The Bears wanted to get a deal done with Okoye to return but that never materialized and he wound up going to the Buccaneers on a $1.3 million, one-year contract that includes incentives that could push the deal to $2 million. That seems like a modest price to pay a regular contributor in the rotation and Okoye made four sacks and had 27 tackles last season. Adams, on the other hand, was seldom used and he fell out of favor and remains a free agent.
How do the the Bears replace Okoye? Melton mentioned wanting to play more this spring. He led interior linemen with 621 snaps and the Bears believe in playing a wave of defenders to keep the linemen fresh. That means Stephen Paea, a second-round pick a year ago, will be expected to play a much more prominent role. Paea figures to be the top backup at both interior positions. Although he came on slow as a rookie, he was regularly playing 30 or more snaps a game in the second half of the season. Following arthroscopic knee surgery in January, he feels more explosive and should be ready for a larger role.
One of the things Melton needs to do is play the run better. Itís about reading his keys. Too often he was a one-dimensional player a year ago. Heís got the physical tools to be a force vs. the run. While the position is not designed to rack up big tackle totals, Melton made only 16 last season in 15 games. When Harris was at his prime, he approached 60 tackles per season. Marinelli talked about working with Melton to read his keys better during the offseason.
Toeaina has been a steady performer since he was scooped off the practice squad of the Bengals late in the 2007 season. He stepped into a starting role for the first time in 2010 and has proven to be rugged vs. the run.
It will be interesting to see how the depth chart breaks down after the top three players. Given the rotation and the injury risk at the position, a reliable fourth option is needed. Jordan Miller, a practice squad player a year ago with great upper body strength, is in the mix. The Bears also brought in three veterans in the spring ó former Billsí first-round draft pick John McCargo, DeMario Pressley and Nate Collins. They figure to be in a battle for one roster spot.
Glass half-full: If Melton can take the next step heíll add a level of consistency to his play and could quickly make himself a top free-agent priority for the organization heading to next season. Melton has the athletic tools to be a top-flight interior rusher but he disappeared at times last season. Paea will also take a major step forward and be on the field for more than 50 percent of the snaps.
Glass half-empty: There is some projecting going on here and the Bears appear thin at the position based on recent seasons. If Melton doesnít improve his game, he could be a liability in running situations.The club could be without a true impact player on the interior.
Bottom line: Everyone is looking to Peppers to lead the defensive front and he will but Melton needs to turn into the kind of player Marinelli believes he is becoming for the defense to have another core player emerge.