How important is the performance of the Bears' defensive line to the success of the defense as a whole?
To right end Alex Brown, it's simple: "If we're getting after the quarterback, it makes it a lot easier for everybody behind us."
It wasn't easy at all last year when the Bears finished 29th in sacks and, as a result, 30th in passing yards allowed.
Adewale Ogunleye, the Bears' left end, said a lack of production by the defensive line last season was at the core of the overall defensive failures.
"The fact that we didn't play well last year, everybody says it's because of the D-linemen," Ogunleye said. "We put that on our backs, and we run with it. If we do well, it's going to be [because of] the d-line, too. So you take the good and the bad, and you say, 'You know what? We get paid to play and play well.' Anything less is unacceptable."
Brown led the team last season with just six sacks, one more than Ogunleye and Tommie Harris. The 11 sacks by the starting defensive ends was their lowest combined total in the past four years. They haven't had so few since 2004, their first year together with the Bears.
The line's pass-rush pressure was so inconsistent last year that the Bears were forced to blitz more than they wanted to, which opened up other holes in the pass defense.
For the Bears defense to function efficiently, the four linemen have to be able to harass the quarterback without help from the back seven.
Ogunleye only came up with 5.0 sacks in 2008.
AP Images: Nam Y. Huh
"That's always going to be the key," Ogunleye said. "I didn't like it last year. When we blitz, I hate it because one guy is dropping and another guy has to contain, so it kind of restricts you a little bit. I'm going to do whatever they tell me to do, but I'm not a fan of blitzing."
That puts more responsibility on the line. Brown and Ogunleye, who should be the top sack men, are fine with that.
"We have the talent, and we're mentally strong enough to handle it," Brown said of the line. “We expect a lot out of ourselves. I don't think it's too much at all. We understand that, with the scheme that we run, if we play well, then we'll give ourselves a better chance to win.
"So that's our job. That's what we do. That's a lot of pressure on us, but we have a veteran group. We have a lot of good talent and we accept that challenge. That's fine. We want to be successful, so let's go do it."
NEWS AND NOTES
Franchise quarterback Jay Cutler did not live up to the hype in his debut, as the Bears lost their preseason opener 27-20 at Buffalo.
In four "underwhelming" possessions that totaled 14 snaps and 71 yards, Cutler completed 5 of 10 passes for 64 yards and was intercepted once. He led the Bears to just three points, and that scoring drive came on a short field after Garrett Wolfe recovered a Dominic Rhodes muffed punt at the Bills' 43-yard line.
Cutler's biggest play of the night, a perfectly thrown seam route to tight end Desmond Clark, got the Bears in the red zone on their fourth possession. But Cutler's third-down pass to Devin Hester, his last play of the evening, was incomplete, and the Bears settled for Robbie Gould's 23-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead with 3:17 left in the first quarter.
The Bears' first possession went three-and-out, but Cutler found Hester in the middle of the defense for a 20-yard gain on the Bears' second series. Two plays later, Cutler's pass intended for Hester was intercepted by Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin.
On the Bears' third possession, another three-and-out, Cutler should have been intercepted again, but the Bills' Reggie Corner dropped a ball that hit him in the hands chest-high.
Cutler didn't put too much emphasis on the opener, in which the offense was without running back Matt Forte and tight end Greg Olsen, who were held out as a precaution.
"Over the next couple of weeks we'll really start picking it up, start game-planning and go deeper into games," Cutler said.
"That's when we'll get a much better feel for where we're headed and what we've got. As soon as we start getting into the game plan, really nailing stuff down, that's when it's really going to count. We're just calling base stuff and seeing what happens out there right now." …
Cutler was asked if he would offer an opinion on whom he wants on the final roster.
"Oh yeah," Cutler said. "I think they're definitely going to ask me. If they don't ask me, I'm going to tell them what I think because I've got to be the one throwing to them on game day, and I've got to trust them. But [offensive coordinator] Ron [Turner] and I have been on the same page since the start of training camp in what guys we wanted to see working in with me and what guys have stepped up and what direction we want to go with this group."
According to coach Lovie Smith, players have input, but only so much.
"Yeah, sure, all the players have influence, I mean we listen to them," he said. "Of course we'll listen to the quarterback, and not only the quarterback, but the rest of our team, too. We want to know how a player fits into the rest of the group. The quarterback has to feel comfortable with the receivers, so we listen to them but in the end we know who is going to make those kinds of decisions." …
Just because the Bears added a Pro Bowl quarterback in the offseason doesn't mean they've forgotten what fuels the offense.
"Our running game is where everything begins," Turner said.
Forte rushed for 1,238 yards last season, the most by a rookie in franchise history, and he also caught a team-best 63 passes. Turner thinks he'll be even better this season.
"He had a very good year, but he can definitely improve," Turner said. "It's just a matter of getting experience, understanding what to expect, and he's a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger and just as fast."
Forte accounted for 34.99 percent of the Bears' yards from scrimmage last season, the highest percentage of any player in the NFL. Last year, the Bears were hesitant to take Forte off the field because of the drop-off in production. But Kevin Jones, the backup then and now, is making it easier for Turner to give Forte an occasional break.
"A year ago Kevin was coming off the knee [surgery]," Turner said. "He wasn't able to get in the condition he is this year, and he was still learning the offense. Now he's had a year in the system and had another year to rehab that knee. He's in great physical shape. He's had a really, really good camp. We will definitely have a plan to get him in and spell Matt."
Forte did not play in the preseason opener (coach's decision), so Jones got the start. …
Rod Marinelli, the defensive line guru who was added to the staff in the offseason, has made getting to the quarterback a priority. When Marinelli came aboard, he expected leadership and a veteran presence in the locker room and on the field from Brown and Ogunleye – and he's gotten it.
"The biggest thing I've been pleased with is their effort, their attitude and their work toward their craft," Marinelli said. "That's really important to me, and that's a great tone to set for the younger players."
Now it's time for Brown and Ogunleye to set the tone as pass rushers.
"When they make changes with the coaches, the next thing you've got to look at is the players," Ogunleye said. "That's just the natural progression. We know that, I know that, and everybody's up for the challenge."
How well the linemen handle that challenge will have a lot to do with how well the Bears' defense performs this season. …
Wide receivers coach Darryl Drake sounded a bit like Yogi Berra when he was discussing the maturation process of wide receivers in the NFL, specifically Devin Aromashodu.
"He's playing without thinking," Drake said of Aromashodu, who has played in six games while spending parts of three seasons on practice squads. "If you get a guy who can play without thinking, then he can play. But it doesn't happen overnight.
"Once it starts to sink in, and once guys start to get a feel for what they've got to do and understand the offense, then they can play. But until then, they play inhibited. They don't play fast, they play tentative, and consequently you don't see the true talent that they have. Once they get it and they understand, then you see the talent."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"I'm at the point [where] I don't care what people say. People are going to talk. It's basically just showing up and showing out, like I've always done, regardless of what the naysayers say." – DT Tommie Harris, whose activity has been limited following arthroscopic surgery in March on his left knee.
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