Every standout player on an above-average Bears defense is over 30.
But worry may be premature. Four of those old-timers were voted to the Pro Bowl last season -- Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman.
It may be asking too much for all four to continue playing at the same elite level they have over the past decade, but none of them showed signs of wear last season. All four played all 16 games. But what are the odds they'll remain that durable for another season?
"I still see a productive defense," said first-year GM Phil Emery. "And that's the most important thing -- that the players we have in starter roles, are they producers? And do they have, for want of another word, do they still have some juice? Do they still have legs? Do they still have burst? Can they still get to the ball? I see players on our defense as starters who still have that burst, that are still producing."
But clearly, the Bears need more help from supporting players and for younger players to step up and play a bigger role, especially in the pass-rush department. The Bears were 29th in sacks last season, despite the presence of right end Peppers, who had 11 sacks and still commands double-team attention. Even with offenses focused on Peppers, left end Israel Idonije contributed just five sacks. Up-and-down tackle Henry Melton quietly had seven sacks. But no one from last season who's back for 2012 had more than two.
The Bears' defense depends on getting pass-rush pressure almost exclusively from the linemen with little blitz help from the back seven, who ideally can focus on coverage. When the front four doesn't produce, an average-at-best secondary is more easily exposed. An upgrade is needed across from Tillman, and the safety position has been a revolving door in Smith's previous eight years. Coincidentally, the Bears have selected a safety in each of the last eight drafts, but they're still looking for a winning combination.
First-round pick Shea McClellin is being counted on to goose the pass rush, but it's tough to imagine where any additional pressure will come from.
"Obviously it helped fill a need for us as a pass rusher," Emery said of the first-round pick. "We are also very excited about Shea in terms of his all-downs ability. This is an all-downs football player, including special teams. This is a four-down player. We are excited about him for several reasons: He's got really quick feet and hands as a pass rusher, and he has natural hips as a pass rusher."
Unless McClellin can help the defense create constant pressure up front, the Bears struggle to create the turnovers that have been a huge part of every successful defense during Smith's reign. Since 2004, the Bears have 266 takeaways, the most in the NFL and 19 more than the second-place Panthers.
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