Bears Notebook: Success of defense likely hinges on young defensive tackles

August 4th, 2011 - 6:12 pm
The Bears will need Henry Melton and their other defensive tackles to improve the pass rush.

The Bears will need Henry Melton and their other defensive tackles to improve the pass rush.

The Bears exhausted an inordinate amount of patience with Tommie Harris over the last five years as they gave him every opportunity to prove that he could regain his Pro Bowl form after sustaining a string of injuries.

It’s easy to understand why. Harris was Lovie Smith’s first draft pick as head coach of the Bears. Smith also took Harris under his wing as a father figure, both sticking out his neck for him and handing out discipline when Harris missed treatment for one of his numerous injuries.

Most importantly, Harris was a Pro Bowl player at the most critical position of Smith’s Cover 2 defense: the under tackle. The Bears’ defense under Smith’s watch was at its best when Harris was at his peak, circa 2005-2006.

But after knee and hamstring injuries took away Harris’ quick burst into the backfield, his level of play declined significantly to the point where he was almost nonexistent on the field. His stay likely would have been shorter had Jerry Angelo not given him a contract extension in 2008. Had they cut him prior to this offseason it would have been like throwing money down the toilet. Additionally, they didn’t have a backup plan in place for his departure.

After giving Harris the hook this offseason, though, the Bears finally appear ready to replace him as they’ve stocked their roster full of talented young tackles. Henry Melton and Matt Toeaina have been with the club a few years, rookie Stephen Paea recorded 49 bench press repetitions at the combine and shows great promise, and the team signed former Texan Amobi Okoye, a four-year veteran but a youngster at the age of 24.

The Bears also have Anthony Adams and Marcus Harrison in the mix, but Adams — at nose tackle — figures to play a supporting role at this point in his career and Harrison could be cut due to his continuous weight problems and failure to live up to expectations. It’ll be one — or two — of the aforementioned young players that will replace Harris at the three-technique and upon whom the Bears will be relying to fuel their defense.

The most successful teams in the league are those that can generate a consistent pass rush. But to narrow it down even further, the elite teams can send inside pressure to disrupt a play from the snap of the ball.

The Bears are hoping they can strike it rich with one of them, and Melton looks to have the early advantage. Melton, the former college running back who converted to defensive end, played well in a reserve role last year and finished with nine quarterback pressures, second most on the team.

Said the recently departed Harris: “Henry Melton is one of the most explosive guys I’ve ever seen. The sky’s the limit for Henry Melton.”

Let’s hope Harris’ analyst skills are better than his defense has been.

Does Martz finally believe in Caleb Hanie?

When Mike Martz came to the Bears in 2010, he had less than flattering thoughts about the supposed backup, Caleb Hanie. Asked if he felt comfortable with Hanie and then-rookie Dan LeFevour in training camp last year, he responded by saying the Bears needed to bring in a veteran backup quarterback. He lobbied hard for one and the Bears finally brought in Todd Collins, who bombed as a backup to Cutler in his two relief appearances — in the regular season against Carolina and in the NFC championship game against the Packers.

After Hanie entered the title game and nearly brought the Bears back to a victory, Martz remains non-committal, but he isn’t actively seeking a veteran to compete with Hanie.

Last year I felt it was imperative for the Bears to sign a veteran backup who could fill in if necessary and it now looks like Hanie can be that guy. Still, I remain convinced that if Cutler misses any long period of time, the Bears’ season is as good as over, anyway.

The “varsity” gets to take the field in place of the “JVs”

Due to the protracted lockout and labor negotiations, the new league year finally began Thursday, which had prevented all Bears free agent signings — both new and returning players — from suiting up due to legal reasons. We’ll finally be able to get our first look at some important signings, which will put an end to a week of interesting workouts — to say the least — featuring less heralded players.

Among the players I’m most interested in following are receivers Roy Williams and Sam Hurd, running back Marion Barber, and center Chris Spencer.

Williams and Hurd, both former Cowboys receivers, are big targets who each bring something unique to the table. Williams made the Pro Bowl under Mike Martz in Detroit and his familiarity with the offense as well as his size could give Jay Cutler a much-needed go-to receiver. Earl Bennett filled that role last season and although he made some nice third-down grabs, he’s not exactly a No. 1 receiver in this league.

Hurd, meanwhile, is a solid special teams player who will have to battle to maintain a roster spot. If he should remain with the team, he’ll wind up replacing Rashied Davis, who left for the Lions, but was a good special teams player in his time here.

As for Barber, the former Cowboy is a bruising back who may have lost a step over the course of his career but will be a much better short-yardage back than either Matt Forte or Chester Taylor.

Finally, after the Bears failed to agree to a new contract with veteran Olin Kreutz, they signed Spencer to come in and replace the leader of the team. Spencer is a much bigger player than Kreutz and should help the Bears in their pursuit of a better ground game. I also expect him to be pushed into the backfield far less than Kreutz had been over the last couple seasons.

Lofa Tatupu rumors persist; only worth signing at reduced price

Free agent Lofa Tatupu, a Pro Bowl linebacker with the Seahawks, continues to be linked with the Bears due to his ties with director of player personnel, Tim Ruskell. The Bears also need to fill out their roster with linebacker depth as Nick Roach currently projects to be the starting strong-side linebacker and behind the starters are mostly special team players.

Tatupu is drawing interest from a handful of teams which is one reason why I don’t feel the Bears will pursue him intently. They are not likely to splurge on a free agent. In addition, Tatupu has been hurt and also plays middle linebacker, where one Brian Urlacher lines up.

My stance on the situation is that while I still feel Tatupu has something left in the tank, he’s not worth spending big bucks on. I feel that he’s talented enough to make the switch to the strong side, but he could just be a better version of Pisa Tinoisamoa, a player who won’t wow anybody but will help solidify the linebacker position if he remains healthy.

What the Bears really need to do is get younger at the position, not older. With Urlacher and Lance Briggs already getting up there in age, the Bears need to add a young playmaker to the mix that can take over the unit when the other two finally leave.

Haugh continues to confound and annoy

Lastly, I wanted to take a parting shot at Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh. Mike Martz was made available to the media this week for the first time since last year’s NFC championship game. While most reporters were asking logical questions about the Bears’ new additions and how Martz plans to call the offense this year, Haugh asked him about Earl Bennett’s failed end around on third down in the fourth quarter of that Packers game.

I only have one question: Why?

What is the point of bringing up a failed play from seven months ago? Are we to believe that Haugh has had this question festering in his subconscious since January? Only to get Martz to respond to the question and then rip him in a column that has nothing to do with this season?

It’s good to see that although players might not be in game shape at the start of training camp, at least Haugh is in regular-season form, harping on all the negatives and trying to prove his intellectual superiority over Bears coaches and the front office.