No NFL defense can prosper -- or even survive -- without a pass rush and the Bears need to establish theirs, both present and future.
Julius Peppers did not dress for the Carolina game. Neither did Corey Wootton. But each still had as many sacks as every other Bears defensive end, including starter Shea McClellin. Wootton and McClellin have been competing for the starting job opposite Peppers but this is a competition that the Bears need both to “win.”
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“We need them both,” said defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. “We need them both to get better and we’ll see how it shakes out. That’s not a new concept for those guys, and they know that.”
Wootton is in a contract year and has had one of the dominant training camps of any defensive player. McClellin has shown flashes and has played visibly faster than he did as a rookie, although is still too often locked up by tackles in pass rush.
The Bears will not be the only team in Soldier Field with a rookie right tackle. The Chargers invested the No. 12 overall pick in Alabama’s massive (6-5, 340 pounds) D.J. Fluker. The rookie will be McClellin’s and Wootton’s dance partner, a matchup that the Bears’ rushers need to win.
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The play of Wootton becomes crucial because he is playing the nickel role formerly held by Israel Idonije, moving inside to tackle in nickel situations. Both McClellin and Wootton will be on the field at the same time and expected to be very close to San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers.
But the need is for no fewer than four impact defensive ends and one focus is on Cornelius Washington, a sixth-round pick who has had moments in practice and now has an opportunity to play to the dominant level he did at the Senior Bowl.
Washington is 6-foot-4, 265 pounds, and the Bears are leaving him at that weight to become a quality speed rusher.
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“I talked to a couple of guys and I don’t think they plan on getting me much bigger than I am right now,” Washington said. “But whatever they ask me to do, I’m going to do.”
Thin at tackle
Henry Melton’s concussion is a concern as it would be for any player because of the nature of the injury and the possibility of recurrence. In his place, Nick Collins was superb as the three-technique, getting pass-rush pressure and being a disruptor. Collins and nose tackle Stephen Paea will be solid.
Less secure is the depth chart beyond the top three, where undrafted rookie tackle Zach Minter has impressed and will get more chances to do so against San Diego.
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“We’ve taken note of Zach, because he’s strong,” Tucker said. “He has good initial quickness. He has a high motor. He’s all over the field. He finishes every play.
“He’s not perfect. None of us are. But he has shown improvement. So we’re always looking for big guys that can move and be stout in the run game and then he’s actually shown some ability to get some push in the pocket. So we’ll see how he continues to go.”