LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Losing defensive tackle Henry Melton for the season due with a torn left anterior cruciate ligament suffered Sunday night against Pittsburgh places a severe strain on a Chicago Bears' defense already struggling at times despite a 3-0 start.
"We lost a very good player," head coach Marc Trestman said Monday, confirming Melton's injury was a torn ACL.
Trestman said he kept in constant communication with Melton via text message Sunday night and Monday. Melton wouldn't accept a ride home from coaches or teammates when the team charter landed and was still emotional about the injury Monday.
On a personal level for Melton, it's a disaster scenario. He was a franchise-tagged free agent in the offseason and in a contract year entering his physical prime. Despite receiving $8.45 million for this season, he will go into next year as a free agent three-technique defensive tackle whose strength is quickness.
Now Melton will be coming off a knee surgery without a contract and Trestman said his rehabilitation will be "long term."
For the Bears, finding a way to replace Melton, in theory, is difficult based on the fact he had the third-most sacks among defensive tackles in the NFL last season (six) and had been working well in pass rush since last season with veteran defensive end Julius Peppers.
In actuality, Melton had not made a big impact this year on a defense which has produced 11 turnovers and scored three touchdowns. He had six tackles and fumble recovery, but hadn't made a sack and generally wasn't much of a factor after leaving the first preseason game with a concussion and sitting out until the regular-season opener.
The lost preseason playing time left Melton's conditioning an issue, so the Bears had been counting on his play improving as the season went on and, in turn, improve their pass rush.
The chief problem with the Chicago defense under new coordinator Mel Tucker has been that the defensive front four has had trouble getting to the quarterback. In the first two games this was evident. In Sunday's 40-23 win over Pittsburgh it wasn't as clear because the Bears went with the blitz to take advantage of Pittsburgh's offensive line problems. They increased their blitzing percentage from about 25 percent of the time to 33 percent, Trestman said, so the game wasn't a good gauge for how the front four is performing.
Nevertheless, Melton, who made his first Pro Bowl in 2012, will be missed. His absence could manifest itself in fewer sack opportunities for Julius Peppers, who has also had a slow start partly due to a preseason hamstring injury and then illness.
Nate Collins will replace Melton. Collins was on the New York Giants practice squad in 2010 but was signed off the squad by the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Bears signed him before last year and he had 23 tackles in nine games.
Another defensive tackle the Bears like is Zach Minter, and he has been on the roster all season but inactive. However, Minter and starting tackle Stephen Paea are both better handling the two-gap responsibilities given to the starting Bears nose tackle instead of playing three-technique and getting into gaps to go after the quarterback.