The unraveling of the 2013 Bears technically began amid a win in Pittsburgh that was pushing the Bears to a 3-0 start. That came with the torn ACL suffered by defensive tackle Henry Melton. The next week they were losing Stephen Paea for a couple of weeks with a foot injury, and a week later Nate Collins was done with a torn ACL.
As the center of the defense crumbled, so did the season, with no Landon Cohen, Zach Minter, Christian Topou or Tracey Robertson able to stanch the bleeding inside.
But the first domino may have fallen before training camp ever started, with Sedrick Ellis opting for retirement and removing what was a hoped-for career restart for a former No. 1. Defensive end Turk McBride also was lost for the year with a ruptured Achilles. With them went veteran depth in a unit that ultimately needed every possible bit of it.
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The stats from ’13 don’t warrant revisiting. It was one of the worst defensive seasons in franchise history, with the result that already the No. 1 defensive line going into camp includes three players who were not even with the team when Camp ’13 started: ends Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston, and tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, who came in late last season.
General manager Phil Emery took responsibility for not staffing the defensive front adequately last season. But it is not a position group where top talent often comes available, and between the retirement of Ellis and the season-ending losses of Collins and Melton, it is difficult to offer courses of personnel action that would have headed off the defensive catastrophe that ensued.
The makeover of the defensive front really began in earnest almost immediately after the season concluded. Line coach Mike Phair and assistant Michael Sinclair were let go, and in their places, veteran Paul Pasqualoni was hired as line coach and Clint Hurtt as assistant. Pasqualoni has coached with the Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins; Hurtt is a first-timer at the NFL level.
The re-signing of Ratliff was a priority, with the former Pro Bowler turning 32 but having played little over the past two years because of injuries. Securing Houston, perhaps the best player on the Oakland Raiders’ defense, was a coup and put in place a left end with the ability to hold the point against the run, mount a pass rush (six sacks) and also slide inside to three-technique in certain packages.
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As much as any addition on either side of the ball, Allen’s signing along with Ratliff’s made a major win-now statement. Both are 30-plus but coming off strong years, with the only downside ultimately being if age takes too much out of their play. Reflecting perhaps the intention to avoid a situation like that of McBride’s, the Bears also signed former Detroit Lion edge rusher Willie Young, another starter-grade player who projects to be a rotation contributor.
While Emery was staffing the edges with veterans, the organization turned to the draft for muscling up the interior. Collins was re-signed for a year, but the longer-term keys were the draft selections of Ego Ferguson in the second round and Will Sutton in the third. Neither is projected to be a first-day starter but both represent significant upgrades to the depth chart, and with potential to start.
“We all know that in order to have a great defense, it starts with the defensive line,” said coordinator Mel Tucker. “So there’s been a lot of focus there. “Jared Allen… practices at a high level. He’s good in the classroom. He leads by example. Ratliff is very, very stout and rugged inside. He’s hard to handle in there. He’s got great experience in there. You add Willie Young, Paea, Lamarr to that mix and the other young guys that we have, and we have great competition at that spot too; a mixture of young players and veteran players.
“It’s a salty group.”
Training camp will answer…
…what the Bears have at nose tackle. Paea is entering a contract year and has yet to put in a 16-game season. He also has been slowed with occasional nicks during training camp, and anything this camp creates opportunities for Ferguson.
The latter had only 12 starts at LSU but like guard Kyle Long on offense, the Bears drafted based on “ceiling” and upside rather than a simple track record. Ferguson is bigger than Paea and gives the Bears two second-round picks at the key physical position on their defense.
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…how Houston will be employed. He is playing at about 275 pounds and has played inside at 300-plus, so he brings technique and experience for interior work. He will be the best run-defender among the ends and is an intriguing mix of quickness and strength that the Bears need to secure one of their edges.
…how fast Ferguson and Sutton will be able to make impacts. Defensive linemen can be the fastest position group to work in as starters and the Bears are counting heavily on the young legs to be key parts of the D-line mix sooner rather than later. Part of that depends on them being better than they were as collegians against better players than they routinely saw pre-NFL.
“Against a lot of teams they could dominate physically,” Pasqualoni said. “But now it’s technique, footwork, hand placement, ‘hat’ placement. There’s a transition to make. But when players believe that the tools you’re putting in their toolbox will work, they’re all in. They are all it. So it’s got to make sense. There has to be evidence of them doing it and it working.”