The Bears’ defense ranked fifth in yardage allowed and third in points last season. The annual chant about the age of the unit has never let up, and several players should draw special attention when the group takes the field against Cam Newton and the Panthers’ offense.
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Defensive line: Few position groups feel as good about their collective play as the D-line. At times it may be difficult to tell which side of the line of scrimmage is winning, but “Oh, we can tell,” said tackle Henry Melton. “We’re not hitting Jay or anything like that, but when we go back and look at film, we can tell when guys are winning. A lot of our guys are winning right now.
“That’s not putting anything towards the O-line right now, but everybody’s winning and losing, but we look pretty good.”
For the most part. Julius Peppers (hamstring) is not expected to play at all, and Corey Wootton has had nagging calf and hip problems over the past week.
Wootton’s availability was unclear as practices ended and the team headed for Carolina, and he represents a critical part of the end at rotationa and also the nickel pass-rush front four.
The performance of Shea McClellin will be watched closely all year, beginning Friday. He has had a good camp with impact plays and improve counter moves in his pass rushes.
The No. 4 spot at DE is there for veteran Kyle Moore to hold onto. Moore, who started 14 games over four seasons with Tampa Bay and Buffalo, moved in with the No. 1 unit when Peppers and Wootton went out. The other “watch” player right now is rookie sixth-rounder Cornelius Washington, whose camp started poorly but who has progressed in his pass rush.
Tackles Melton and Stephen Paea are the starters at tackle. Nate Collins is the No. 3. Corvey Irvin started his career as an undrafted free agent with Carolina, is on his fifth NFL team since 2010 but has taken the most snaps with the No. 2 defense.
Linebacker: Rookie Jon Bostic is the story going into preseason, taking over at middle linebacker when D.J. Williams went down with a calf injury. Bostic was the Bears’ second-round draft pick and has improved steadily since moving in with the No. 1’s. Williams may not find his job open if Bostic continues his upward trend line.
“He’s getting better and better every day,” said coordinator Mel Tucker. “It’s a challenge for him, but he takes on a challenge. I really like his progress so far.”
James Anderson came from Carolina to the Bears and is set at strong-side linebacker. He would that to be the case beyond just this season.
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“I feel like I could stay here for a while,” Anderson said. “A one-year deal just means, go prove yourself. So you go out there and you play ball and you let the chips fall where they may.”
Rookie Khaseem Greene was a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft but is a factor when Lance Briggs is finished.
Secondary: Starters are set: Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman at cornerback; Chris Conte and Major Wright at safety.
The focus in Carolina, however, will be on Isaiah Frey, having a very strong camp and now getting a shot at nickel back after the season-ending hamstring to Kelvin Hayden.
“I like [Frey],” Tucker said. “I’m pulling for him because every day he comes out with a great attitude. He’s got a smile on his face. He’s not playing cautious. He’s looking to make plays. He’s doing what he’s coached to do.
“That’s what you’re looking for out of young players. He’s a great young man, and we’re just really excited about the progress he’s been making out here on a day-to-day basis.”
Brandon Hardin makes his return from a season-ending neck injury last August and the Bears want him to become relevant on special teams and as a future in the deep secondary.