Ahh, good news. The Bears defensive line was undeniably the deepest and arguably the most productive unit (I say arguably because Charles Tillman is coming to punch my balls) on the team this year. The entire rotation contributed with seven different lineman getting to the quarterback. The Bears were consistently able to get good pressure on quarterbacks with just their front four, allowing the defense do run the zones they thrive in. In the end, the Bears finished 8th in the NFL with 41 sacks, with 38 coming from the defensive line. If there was a weakness, it was that the team finished just 14th in yards per carry allowed and struggled to contain the top-flight rushing attacks they faced in the second half of the season. A certain linebacker certainly contributed to the defense's struggles in that department, but it is still a place where there's room for improvement.
#90 Julius Peppers: 16 games, 16 games started, 39 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 2 passes defensed, 1 FF, 1 fumble recovery.
On the surface, Julius had yet another stellar campaign as a Bear, finishing for the second straight year with at least 11 sacks. Behind the numbers he wasn't quite as dominant as he had been his previous two years in Chicago. Pro Football Focus had him at +9.9 for the season, a very good grade, but not the +21.7 he posted the year before. He wasn't quite able to take away an entire half of the field in the run game as he had done before, and he wasn't the relentless pass-rushing force he was before, with his sacks tending to come in bunches with some distance between.
That said, we knew this would happen. The Bears were never going to get THE Julius Peppers for the entire length of that contract. That's just the reality of free agency. The important thing is that, even as he struggled with injury this year, Julius was still a damn good defensive end. You'd take Julius Peppers in a "down" year over just about all but a handful of defensive ends in the NFL at their peak. He also managed to post similar line stats to his 2011 campaign despite taking nearly 100 fewer snaps at DE. You hope going forward that Shea McClellin can continue to develop behind him and that Corey Wootton can stay healthy, because the best bet for the Bears to continue to get production, if not the superhuman annihilation of opposing offenses he was known for before, from Julius for the remainder of his deal. Regardless, I love Julius Peppers.
#71 Israel Idonije: 16 games, 11 games started, 48 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 1 FF
You don't have to know much about me to know that I'm not exactly the kind of fan who thumps his chest and gets all teary-eyed over grit and hustle or to tout the merits of some kind of lunch pail player. The exception to this rule is Israel Idonije. Izzy's been with the Bears since 2004, and in that time he's played every spot on the line. Up until 2010 he was usually the third defensive tackle off the bench. Then he switched to a mostly full-time DE, and the result was an extremely productive season. He tailed off as a pass-rusher in the second-half of 2011, even though his run defense remained stout. You couldn't really blame the Bears for opting to get younger at the position with the addition of Shea McClellin, and the emergence of Corey Wootton was also a pleasant surprise. It appeared Izzy's days were numbered.
Izzy responded with a great season, however. He was tops among all Bears defensive lineman in tackles, had an even better year against the run, with a +7.4 grade in that category. He was benched midway through the season for Wootton, and took the demotion in stride, especially he spent plenty of time at DT after his demotion.
Right now Izzy is a free agent, and I understand that the Bears brought in Turk McBride and that Shea and Wootton will both play bigger roles next year. My heart still wants Izzy back on the team, however, because he's as easy a player to root for as there is, and because he's still a damn good football player.
#98 Corey Wootton: 16 games, 7 games started, 27 tackles, 7.0 sacks, 1 pass defensed, 2 FF
Up until this year it seemed the Corey Wootton would go down as a trivia answer for his only career sack being the death of Brett Favre, but then he managed to stay healthy for an entire season for the first time since his junior year of college. With his new-found health Wootton erupted with 7 sacks as a rotational DE, eventually moving into the starting role. His development was huge as it allowed the Bears to give much-needed rest to Julius Peppers and it kept the team from having to expand Shea McClellin's role too quickly. While Wootton struggled a bit against the run when he moved into the starting lineup, it seems only reasonable to suspect that he'll improve as he gets more experience.
#99 Shea McClellin: 14 games, 0 games started, 14 tackles, 2.5 sacks
I think Shea McClellin is a good football player, I really do. Although he finished with slightly below average rating from Pro Football Focus for the season, primarily due to being a complete non-entity against the run, he graded out positively as a pass-rushing specialist, with 22 hurries to go along with his 2.5 sacks. That was all the team really needed from him last year, and, as I said, the resurgence of Izzy and the emergence of Wootton meant Shea really didn't have to do much other than provide pressure on the quarterback on 3rd down. If Izzy's not coming back, and with Pepper being a year older, Shea will have to be a more complete player next year. Hopefully with a year of experience, some better health, and a full offseason, he'll be ready, but he's going to have to put up some big numbers to silence the critics.
#95 Cheta Ozougwu: 2 games, 0 games started, 3 tackles.
Awesome name. Otherwise nothing special. Probably won't make the roster next year.
#69 Henry Melton: 14 games, 14 games started, 44 tackles, 6.0 sacks, 2 FF
I really hope the Bears can work out a long-term deal with Melton, because he's truly something special. He finished the year as Pro Football Focus' 7th rated defensive tackle in the NFL, although he ranks even higher if you only count other 4-3 DTs. Considering that Henry was a runningback less than four years ago, and that he's only been a full-time DE for two, his rapid progress is nothing short of remarkable. Last year he burst onto the scene with two sacks in the opener against the Falcons but followed with a largely up-and-down season as a pass-rusher and he struggled often with being over-aggressive and exposed against traps, draws, and screens. This year he became a truly dominant pass-rusher week in and week out, and he developed into a fairly average run defender. The sky's the limit when you consider Henry's talent, however, so I'm willing to bet that the best is yet to come.
#92 Stephen Paea: 15 games, 14 games started, 24 tackles, 2.5 sacks
Stephen Paea started to show some flashes of being the dominant nose tackle that Lovie envisioned two years ago this year. Overall he graded out positively with a +1.7 grade on the season. He was, naturally, better against the run than the pass, but he still contributed in that department with 2.5 sacks, more than his predecessor, Spice Adams, managed in his four years as the Bear's primary nose tackle. Hopefully the Bears have found their main duo for years to come in Melton and Paea.
#93 Nate Collins: 9 games, 0 games started, 11 tackles, 1 pass defensed, 2 FF
Nate Collins was the line's second biggest surprise after Wootton, finishing the season with a stellar +4.9 rating from PFF in his time in the rotation. He has the flexibility to play either the nose or the three-technique, and he was one of the few Bears defensive linemen to grade out well against both the run and the pass. I'm glad the Bears managed to bring him back, as that leaves them with three young, talented, and still-developing players in their rotation.
#91 Amobi Okoye: 9 games, 0 games started, 12 tackles, 1.0 sack, 1 FF
Amobi served two stints with the Bears this year, as he was cut early in the season after Nate Collins beat him out, but returned to finish out the season after injuries to Melton and McClellin left the team in need of more depth. While he wasn't quite the impact player he was in 2011, he was still fairly solid for a third-string DT and I wouldn't be surprised if the Bears brought him back on board if he's still hanging around on waivers this summer.
#75 Matt Toeaiana: 3 games, 2 games started, 4 tackles
Toeiana was never really much more than a body. He was more effective than a post-injury Tommie Harris and the older, slower version of Spice Adams, but he was never really going to be the long-term solution at the nose. The team is currently waiting for him to get healthy enough that they can work out an injury settlement and then cut him.
That's all for now. Next time: Lance Briggs is still awesome, but Brian Urlacher is not.