COMMENTARY | The Chicago Bears almost made it three full games this season without experiencing a significant injury. Unfortunately, they suffered a major blow late in Week 3.
Melton, who will be a free agent following this season, signed the franchise tag tender with Chicago this offseason and was playing under a one-year contract as a result. His latest injury could be a significant blow to his financial future (at least in the short term) but let's examine what the Bears will be missing without their star interior lineman.
A converted running back out of Texas, the fifth-year Melton has provided the Bears defense with superior athleticism that they hadn't had at the three-technique since Tommie Harris was wrecking havoc in 2005. Melton's 13 sacks in the last two seasons were second in the NFL in that span, but he also showed a quick burst against the run, often beating opposing offensive linemen to spots and blowing up plays in the backfield.
So how will the Bears replace such a vital cog on a defense that currently ranks eighth against the run second in turnover differential and first in takeaways? Here are four ways they can try and fill Melton's shoes:
Replace him from within: The Bears have received solid, steady play from Stephen Paea at the DT position opposite Melton thus far this season. Paea has always had the strength to be a force against the run (his 49 reps on the bench press at the 2011 NFL Combine set a record) but the third year man out of Oregon State has begun to play with more consistency early this season. He has 11 tackles, including seven in the season opening victory against the Cincinnati Bengals.
But aside from Paea, there isn't much left in terms of previous production at the position. The Bears will likely lean on both Nate Collins and Corey Minter to pick up the slack at Melton's spot.
Collins is the expected starter there, with the fourth year veteran having accrued seven tackles in limited playing time. The Bears like his athleticism, which, as Melton showed, is vital at that spot in the Bears defense. Minter has been inactive in each of the first three games this season.
Despite the inexperience of both, the Bears liked what they saw out of both in training camp and in Collins thus far. They remain confident that both can get the job done.
Move Corey Wootton inside: The Bears kicked around the idea of him playing inside early in training camp before the 6'6 270 lb. Wootton went down with a calf injury. Even so, the Bears have employed him playing inside in obvious passing situations, with Melton occupying the other DT position and Shea McClellin and Julius Peppers playing DE.
He has the strength to play inside all the time, and the Bears initially drafted him out of Northwestern in 2010 with the idea of swinging him between both positions. Should either Collins or Minter (or both) struggle with the increase in playing time, it wouldn't surprise anyone to see the position change become permanent.
Continue to call more blitzes: For years under former head coach Lovie Smith, the Bears hung their hats on applying pressure with four down linemen and dropping seven into pass coverage. While that has often still been the case under new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, Chicago has brought pressure more throughout the early portion of this season.
That means the Bears have called on players such as linebackers Lance Briggs and James Anderson and defensive backs Chris Conte and Isaiah Frey to bring the heat on opposing quarterbacks. Thus far, the results have been good.
The Bears rank first in the NFL in takeaways with 11 after forcing the Steelers into five miscues in Week 3. Major Wright's interception returned for a touchdown came against the blitz, as did D.J. Williams' forced fumble.
The Bears simply can't expect Collins and Minter to step in and play at the level Melton did before his injury. In order to keep the pressure on opposing quarterbacks, then, they'll need to continue sending extra guys their way.
Bring in outside help: The Bears already exercised this option in lieu of Melton's injury, announcing Friday they signed DT Landon Cohen.
Cohen has been in the NFL since 2007 and bounced around for much of his career. He has experience playing under Tucker during their days in Jacksonville in 2010 as well as former Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli in Detroit and this year in Dallas (he had one tackle for them in two games before being released).
Still, let's look at what happens if Cohen doesn't fit. Currently, there are numerous former Bears that are sitting at home waiting for a phone call. Two guys to keep in mind are Corvey Irvin, and Matt Toeaina, both of whom have experience playing in the Bears defensive system should they be given the opportunity.
Irvin almost made the Bears out of training camp this season before losing his roster spot to the aforementioned Minter. The former third round pick out of Georgia spent all of minicamp and training camp with Chicago and knows Tucker's system well.
Toeaina originally joined Chicago late in the 2007 season and was highly productive for the five seasons he was with them. He started 24 games, racking up 66 tackles and two sacks. He was supplanted by Melton in 2011 and would love an opportunity to come in and fill the shoes that once filled his.
Billy Grayson is a Yahoo contributor from Chicago and diehard Chicago sports follower. He is currently studying Broadcast Journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
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