Countdown to Camp: Peppers should dramatically improve defensive line

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This is Part 6 of the 10-part position analysis leading up to the start of the Bears’ 2010 training camp in Bourbonnais.

Lovie Smith will be entering his seventh season as the head coach of the Bears and by now the secret to the success of his defense is no secret. When the defense gets a great pass rush from the line, even an average secondary can look good and make plays. However, if the front four fails to generate pressure on the quarterback, then we see results similar to those against Cincinnati and Arizona from a year ago.

Recognizing the need to drastically improve the pass rush, the Bears parted ways with not one, but both of their starting defensive ends. In fairness to Alex Brown, his release came not from poor performance but rather a move to trim payroll. Cutting cost was a necessity, of course, after the Bears heavily pursued — and landed — the top defensive lineman in free agency, Julius Peppers.

Peppers instantly brings credibility to the line with 81 career sacks in 8 seasons, an average of a little more than 10 sacks per season. What Peppers brings to the end position is what Brian Urlacher once brought to middle linebacker: an unheard of combination of speed, strength, and athleticism. It is that formula that enables him to make plays and create havoc in the backfield for opposing offenses.

Peppers will be heavily scrutinized this season and not only because he’s making $20 million, the most money he’ll earn in a given year in his record contract. He, like Jay Cutler was last off-season, will be looked upon as a savior, somebody who will be called upon to drastically improve a struggling facet of the team. Of course, as we learned from last year’s experiment, one man alone cannot change the fortunes of an entire unit. All he can do is upgrade portions of it and make those around him better. While Cutler made the wide receivers better by leaps and bounds, Peppers will have to do the same with his linemates, and it is the plan that as an upgraded position, they’ll all be able to make the struggling secondary better.

The first player to keep an eye on to measure Peppers’ impact will be defensive tackle Tommie Harris. Harris, at this stage of his career, is nothing more than a semi-athletic tackle with a bum knee who is capable of displaying flashes of brilliance at irregular, incidental moments throughout the season. I’ve grown tired and weary from hearing fans and analysts alike hoping for a Harris revival. How many times have we heard, “If Tommie Harris can return to the form he displayed in the Super Bowl season…?”

That was four years ago. That Tommie Harris is gone and will never return. But the Bears don’t necessarily need that Harris to be a dominant force again. What they need from Harris is a guy who can take advantage of the attention that Peppers will command and be somewhat disruptive in the backfield. Anything more is wishful thinking; anything less is a disappointment.

Maybe the player that will benefit the most from the arrival of Peppers is defensive end Mark Anderson, who was promoted to be the likely starter to replace the departed Brown. Anderson had 12 sacks in his rookie season of 2006 as a situational pass rusher, was promoted to starter the ensuing off-season, and has failed to record 12 combined sacks in the three seasons since then. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli felt strongly in the progress that Anderson made last year when Marinelli was the line coach.

Anderson will see few double teams this season because of the attention that both Peppers and Harris will receive. If Anderson will ever see a sack total that resembles his rookie year — and whether or not he’s got another one of those seasons in him is a big question mark — this would be the season he’d do it. In 2003, his last season in Miami and before he was acquired by the Bears, Adewale Ogunleye recorded 15 sacks while playing opposite Jason Taylor. The Bears’ hope is that Anderson can mimic that by playing opposite Peppers.

The last player to discuss who could finally have a breakout year is tackle Marcus Harrison. Big things were expected from him last season until he showed up at training camp looking like, well, a big thing. Arriving at camp overweight and out of shape landed him in the doghouse and he was not allowed to participate at training camp until he worked his way back into shape. He supposedly is in better condition this year — at least, that was the outlook during off-season work — and if he has the motivation to do it, he can be a disruptive player on the line this year.

Another player to keep an eye on is Anthony Adams, who has been as consistent as anybody over the last couple seasons. The Bears will give Harrison every opportunity to start, but will have Adams waiting in the wings if necessary. Jarron Gilbert and Henry Melton, last year’s rookies, accomplished nothing in their “redshirt” years but could merit some playing time in a deep rotation this year.

Rookie Corey Wootton is an intriguing player to watch during training camp and the preseason. Wootton slid in the draft to the fourth round due to durability concerns but many scouts have said he had the talent of a first rounder. He could see action in the defensive end rotation with Israel Idonije also in the mix. Idonije might be in the tackle rotation as well.

A team can never have too many good defensive linemen and this year’s Bears team appears to have solid depth at the position. Similar to the problem that the Bears have at wide receiver, they may have difficulty getting all their linemen on the field. But, at the very least, having a lot of bodies creates great competition and should bring out the best in everybody.

The “best” from the front four is what’s needed if the defense is going to return to glory.

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