The defense received a third straight Pro Bowl season from Julius Peppers, only the second Bears defensive lineman (Tommie Harris 2005-07) to earn that all-star honor in three consecutive seasons since Doug Atkins finished a run of seven straight a half-century ago (1963). Peppers at age 33 finished with 11.5 sacks and started all 16 games for the third straight year and showed exactly zero signs of acting his NFL age.
Peppers’ work was part of a year in which the defensive ends accounted for 28.5 sacks – nearly matching the DEs’ total when the Bears set the NFL single-season sack record (72) in 1984 behind Richard Dent (17.5), Mike Hartenstine (seven), Tyrone Keys (2.5) and Henry Waechter (two).
The 2012 results came with significant upsides. Although Israel Idonije (7.5) was not re-signed and is now a Detroit Lion, Corey Wootton played his way into Idonije’s starting job at midseason.
In 582 snaps played, Wootton produced seven sacks, two forced fumbles, 12 quarterback pressures and 18 tackles in what amounted to a breakout for the 2010 fourth-round draft choice. Wootton turned 26 in June and is relatively low-mileage after playing just 13 games over his first two seasons.
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The organization made upgrading the pass rush a priority in last year’s draft, selecting Shea McClellin with the 19th overall pick. Coaches immediately put his hand on the ground and had him come off the edge, and he admittedly struggled. McClellin finished with 2.5 sacks and missed one game with a concussion and another with a knee issue.
The Bears continued looking for help on the edges this offseason. The pipeline between New Orleans and Chicago that brought Saints tackle Jermon Bushrod and defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis also had room for defensive end Turk McBride.
And when Georgia defensive end Cornelius Washington was still on the board when the Bears’ turn came in the sixth round of this year’s draft, the Bears took a flyer on an exceptional athlete who had limited production but, like McClellin, has worked at both linebacker and defensive end.
Issue No. 1 Shea McClellin
McClellin was the first first-round draft choice of GM Phil Emery and the single biggest reason why Emery is in his job is failed No. 1 draft choices by his predecessor. McClellin showed flashes his rookie season but did not establish himself as a situational pass rusher in the mold of Bruce Irvin for Seattle or as an every down edge player a’la Chandler Jones in New England.
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The overall point isn’t whether Emery was right or not; the specific reason for drafting McClellin was to ratchet up the pass rush, and without that, the Bears will be challenged in every area of the defense.
What McClellin did do, however, was establish that he can move seamlessly into a variety of roles. Indeed, he was arguably more effective in a two-point stance than with his hand on the ground matching up with a right tackle. McClellin told CSNChicago.com during training camp that he was being engulfed too often, learning to play out of the stance and operating at a significant size disadvantage against Gabe Carimi and J’Marcus Webb. And the competition only got better from there.
McClellin was noticeably fitter during the offseason program and said he has added 6-8 pounds of muscle. But he has not mastered or developed NFL-grade counter moves, the second moves that allow setting up a blocker with one move and beating him with a second, and form a quiver of moves capable of providing answers to the sets and schemes as they unfold in front of McClellin.