On the NFL
September 21, 2012
Sacks have been the source of much consternation at Halas Hall this season. But they also have been the source of much consternation in the offices of every Bears opponent.
It hasn't gotten much airtime, but the Bears can give nearly as good as they take in the sack department.
They have sacked opponents eight times. That's one fewer than they have given up but more than all but one team in the league after two games.
And Sunday at Soldier Field, they will have a prime opportunity to add to that total against a Rams team that will start four linemen who were expected to be backups at best.
Sacks are not always an effective gauge of pass rushing, but in the Bears' case there is little doubt the production signals improvement.
The addition of Shea McClellin has helped, as has the availability and improvement of Corey Wootton.
With more pass rushers, the Bears are using them in different ways, and that also helps explain the improvement.
The Bears haven't blitzed much, but they have kept offenses guessing with defensive linemen lining up in different spots. The primary benefit of this is to force offensive linemen to play "Where's Waldo?" with Julius Peppers.
So far this season, Peppers has played 71 percent of his snaps at his familiar right end position. But he has played 14 percent at left end and another 14 percent at tackle.
"Sometimes you get in a game when teams try to game-plan certain players," Peppers said. "When you move around and give them different looks, they can't pinpoint where a certain person is going to be."
That certain person is Peppers. Opponents often try to double him or slide protections to him. But he has had a lot of singles this year and has taken advantage.
If Peppers can get one-on-one with a guard or center from the tackle position, it's almost always a winning situation for the Bears.
"Sometimes when you go inside it's a little easier to read the protections, but you can never predict how the offensive line is going to block," he said. "You just hope to get a mismatch."
Peppers turns into a power rusher inside as he lines up close enough to the quarterback to see if he has any nose hair sticking out. With one good push, Peppers can be in position to clean up if the Bears have any kind of outside rush.
It already has happened twice this season. One of his sacks, against the Packers, came when Henry Melton, rushing from right end, forced Aaron Rodgers to step up right into Peppers' arms. And Peppers would have had a similar sack against the Colts if McClellin had not been called for lining up in the neutral zone.
"If you get a quick move or quick rush you can get a lot closer than coming around the edge," Peppers said, amused by the notion of letting ends do the dirty work. "I just let them rush and I stay in the pocket and wait for the quarterback to scramble. Then I go get him."
The Bears have done a little of this in the past but are doing more now. Melton's development has enabled Peppers to become more of a wild card on the line. Last year, Melton wasn't ready to play end.
"With young guys like Henry, you have to be careful early moving them around too much because it can stunt their growth," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "We have some real nice flexibility now."
For a player to move around on the line, he has to be comfortable in a right- or left-handed stance. He needs to get down all the fundamentals for rushing at different depths. And he also has to know twice as many assignments.
"It can get heavy on guys," Marinelli said. "If it affects how hard we play, we pull back."
It's all about playing hard to Marinelli, which explains why he wants Peppers and the other line starters to be on the field less this year.
Last season, Peppers played in 82 percent of the defensive snaps, an average of 55 per game. This year, he has played in 74 percent, an average of 50.
Improved depth gives Marinelli the flexibility to keep everyone fresh.
"I don't want to have tired rushers," he said. "This saves them a little wear and tear."
And it puts a little more wear and tear on opposing quarterbacks.
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