If the Bears want to end their four-year postseason drought it's going to start and end with the play of their revamped defensive line.
Much like he did with the offensive line last offseason, Bears general manager Phil Emery used his resources upgrading a defensive line that was uncharacteristically bad and played a huge role in costing the team the NFC North title in 2013. The defense as a whole was tied for 28th in the NFL with just 30 sacks on the season.
Gone are eight-time Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers (64 games with the Bears), defensive tackle Henry Melton (48 games) and DE/DT Corey Wootton (45 games).
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The trio has been replaced by five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen (128 1/2 career sacks), defensive ends Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, and rookie defensive tackles Ego Ferguson (second round) and Will Sutton (third round).
The only holdovers from last year's defensive line are four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, who Emery re-signed and hopes can rebound from a groin injury that's kept him from playing all but 11 games the last two seasons, and defensive tackles Stephen Paea — now the longest tenured member of the Bears defensive line — and Nate Collins.
"They are good additions," Paea told CSNChicago.com. "We're just going forward with it and these guys are not scrubs. I feel like we didn't miss a beat. If anything better, just because we have Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston on the side and Jay Ratliff in the middle. I'm excited for this group."
The new defensive line has already shown positive signs.
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They had their first test last Friday against a Philadelphia Eagles offense that posted 54 points — although nine points came from an INT return and a safety — in a Week 16 matchup last season.
On the first possession of the game, pressure from both Houston and Young caused Eagles quarterback Nick Foles to throw an interception to safety Ryan Mundy. Later, pressure from Ratliff drew a holding penalty on Eagles All-Pro guard Evan Mathis. On the next play, Paea made his way into Philadelphia's backfield that resulted in Foles throwing an errant pass that was nearly picked off by linebacker Lance Briggs.
Although it's just preseason, the coaching staff has to be pleased with the progress of a defensive line that's only been on the field together for less than a month.
And that growth could be credited to the leadership of the two elder statesmen on the D-line.
"They've [Allen and Ratliff] been teaching me communication, and stuff they've seen from other defensive tackles," Paea said. "Ratliff has taught me the most. How you play blocks, what you can pick up pre-snap, and that's just very helpful for me because the game has gotten a little slower for me. This is my fourth year and I'm just picking up tips."