In advance of Chicago Bears training camp, ESPNChicago.com's experts are taking a look at some of the key issues the team must confront in the coming weeks.
Jeff Dickerson: With 19 sacks over the past two seasons, it’s safe to say Julius Peppers has mostly lived up to the monster six-year deal he signed with the Bears in March 2010. But elite teams need more than simply one dominant pass rusher in the NFL, and the Bears are still searching for the right complement to the 32-year-old Peppers.
Projected starter Israel Idonije, who turns 32 in November, is a solid veteran presence who played well enough to convince the Bears to bring him back on a one-year deal. However, it must be pointed out that Idonije’s sack totals fell from eight in 2010 to five last season. That number is too low when you consider how much attention Peppers is getting on the other side of the line. That's likely why the organization invested a 2012 first-round draft pick on Shea McClellin.
Forcing McClellin to be more than a situational pass rusher as a rookie might be asking too much. But the plan isn’t for the Boise State product to sit on the bench. In a perfect world, McClellin can accomplish half or a little more than half of what Mark Anderson did for the Bears as rookie in 2006 in a similar role. That kind of production, combined with Idonije’s standard steady play, would be a huge bonus for the Bears' defense.
Third-year end Corey Wootton and veteran Chauncey Davis remain in the mix, but McClellin is a first-round pick, so no doubt the Bears would love to see him in the gameday rotation as soon as possible.
Michael C. Wright: The staff continues to say it wants more production from the pass rush. But interestingly, the front four performed better in 2011 than many realize. Chicago utilized a four-man rush on 73 percent of pass plays, which ranked as sixth-most in the NFL, according to “Football Outsiders.” The unit still managed to rack up 30 sacks (seventh-best in the NFL), accounting for 94 percent of the team’s total sack output.
Three of the four starters on the defensive line are 30 or older, including Peppers, who has shown no signs of decline. Still, with all the attention Peppers draws, the staff will expect Idonije and defensive tackle Henry Melton to do a better job of taking advantage of their matchups.
The Bears also figure to count on younger players such as rising second-year man Stephen Paea and McClellin to make key contributions in the rotation. McClellin remains an unknown, but he possesses a promising skill set and plays with a relentless style that garnered praise from the coaches in the offseason. If McClellin doesn’t beat out Idonije for the start, he’ll still be an ideal candidate for a third-down pass rushing specialist. Paea, meanwhile, came on toward the end of 2011 and should improve in Year 2.
Because the Bears aren’t a blitzing team, they’ve relied on pre-snap alignment changes to create one-on-one matchups (even though Peppers is still oftentimes double teamed) up front, and have fared well.
Bears coach Lovie Smith seemed to give defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli more freedom for creativity with scheme last season, which featured plenty of effective stunts.
Working exclusively with the defensive line, Marinelli should improve the rush in 2012. But remember, an improved pass rush doesn’t necessarily mean more sacks. The Bears just want opposing quarterbacks under constant duress, which increases the prospect for errant throws, and gives the club’s playmaking linebackers and secondary more opportunities to gobble up turnovers.