Prized free-agent defensive end Julius Peppers (81 career regular-season sacks) instantly improves the Bears' pass rush. That much is certain. It's the rest of the defensive line that remains somewhat of a question mark entering the 2010 season.
In the three years since Super Bowl 41, one of the Bears' biggest problems has been their inability to consistently harass the quarterback. Everything about the defense is predicated on the ability of the front four to generate pressure, and when it fails to happen, things tend to fall apart.
The Bears made it a point to revamp the defensive end position this offseason, signing Peppers while saying good-bye to veterans Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye. Last year, the two former starters combined for 12.5 sacks, only two more than Peppers tallied by himself during his final campaign in Carolina.
But at the other defensive end spot, new starter Mark Anderson registered only 3.5 sacks, a far cry from his breakout rookie year in 2006 when he had 12. To further complicate matters, Anderson has been in this position before. He was elevated to first string in 2007, but was unable to effectively play both the pass and run, and eventually lost to starting position back to Brown. What has Anderson done to restore the Bears' faith in him? Why was Brown deemed expendable? These are question only Anderson can answer by his performance on the field. The Bears do have plenty of depth at defensive end in the form of Israel Idonije, Jarron Gilbert and rookie Corey Wootton, but it may be unfair to expect any of the reserves to put up high sack totals.
Conventional wisdom suggests Peppers' arrival should loosen things up inside for tackles Tommie Harris, Anthony Adams and Marcus Harrison. At least that's the hope. Adams is a dependable interior lineman, but he's much more proficient at stopping the run as opposed to taking down the quarterback. Harris and Harrison are supposed to be the difference makers. Although Harris didn't play poorly last year, he hasn't been a consistent disruptive force since 2007, the season before he signed a four-year extension. Harrison is extremely talented, but sidetracked by personal issues and illness the last two offseasons.
If Harris, surgery-free this offseason for the first time in recent memory, and Harrison find a way to put it all together, the Bears should be dangerous up front. And if the Bears get after the quarterback, the defense will regain its swagger. But if they don't, Peppers can't possibly be expected to do it all by himself. We've all seen firsthand the effects of a below average pass rush.
It's no longer a cliche when Lovie Smith says "it all starts up front." That could be the theme for 2010.