In the second quarter of yesterday's contest in Jacksonville, Chicago Bears defensive end Corey Wootton made his presence felt. The score was tied 3-3 and the Jaguars were in the midst of an 11-play, 57-yard drive. Jacksonville's offense lined up for a 2nd and 11 play at Chicago's 21-yard line.
Blaine Gabbert dropped back to pass. Wootton exploded off the snap and used a rip move to blow past the offensive tackle. He hit Gabbert as he was trying to throw, stripping the ball in the process. Julius Peppers fell on the pigskin for a Bears takeaway.
This was a momentum-changing play, one that kept the game tied heading into the half. If the Jaguars go up 10-3 at that point, they might have been able to build on that momentum and stave off a second-half drubbing. Instead, Chicago was able to reel off 38 straight points after the half, finishing with a 41-3 victory.
Wootton had another sack later in the contest and now has 3.5 on the season. Coming into 2012, he had earned just 1.0 sack through his first two injury filled seasons in the NFL.
As a junior at Northwestern in 2008, Wootton was considered a potential first-round pick. Yet he hurt his knee in the Alamo Bowl that year and never returned to form his senior season. As a result, he fell to Chicago in the fourth round (109th overall) of the 2010 draft.
He was used sparingly his rookie year, with his only highlight being his sack of Brett Favre, which ended the future Hall of Famer's career. He came into 2011 training camp healthy and showed outstanding burst and quickness. Yet he again hurt his knee in the preseason opener, followed by a wrist injury early in the regular season, which derailed his campaign.
"Last year, preseason, I had a really good preseason and got injured and my confidence level wasn't the same as it was in training camp," Wootton told Bear Report last week. "But this year, we had an offseason, the workouts that we didn't have the prior year."
Now that he's healthy, Wootton is finally showing why he was once considered a possible first rounder.
"I think it may be as simple as Corey staying out there and being healthy," Lovie Smith said today. "The reason we drafted him, we talked a lot about his potential. But it seemed like injuries have cut that short a little bit, him making that next leap. But he is healthy now."
Wootton's combination of size (6-7, 260) and speed makes him tough to block in both the pass and run game.
"He's got great size for a defensive end but he can rush the passer too," said Smith. "We do see improvement from him. He hasn't played a lot, but he'll get better and better.
"Everything starts up front for our defense, putting pressure on the quarterback, which, of course, they did yesterday. And Corey has taken advantage of his reps."
Beyond staying healthy, Wootton credits his success this year in his ability to come off the ball quickly, allowing him to get a step on opposing linemen.
"I was more focused on my get-off and being able to hit the edge," Wootton said after the game. "Last week I was going too deep around the quarterback. I had a good take-off all day and was able to get a couple [sacks]."
The Bears sacked Gabbert three times on Sunday, giving the team 18.0 total sacks, the most in the NFL. The production has come across the board, with every single defensive linemen producing in the pass rush. The front seven has also been stout against the run and are ranked first overall.
The pressure Chicago has been able to get on opposing quarterbacks has led to 17 takeaways, the most in the league.
"It's definitely a lot of fun and the energy they bring, all across the board and it's great playing for a defense like this," said Wootton. "It was one of my better games but I don't want to be content with this. I still have a lot of room to improve and get better on."
Wootton's continued improvement is creating arguably the deepest defensive line in the NFL, one that could carry the Bears to the playoffs.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.