You can't talk to any defensive players on the Bears for very long without hearing them mention end Julius Peppers, the biggest catch in this year's free-agent fishing derby.
Unlike the average fan, professional athletes aren't inclined to look at a teammate as "the savior," and Bears players don't think of the 6-7, 283-pound Peppers that way, even though he's had more than 10 sacks in six of his eight NFL seasons. But they do realize that the five-time Pro Bowler is a difference maker who can elevate a good defense to a great one.
The feeling goes all the way back into the secondary, where pass-rush pressure from Peppers can help that group get more of the interceptions that were lacking last season.
"I think the attitude is that we got big nine-zero there, so he's going to help us out a lot," said cornerback Charles Tillman, whose two interceptions last season were his fewest in five years. "And with Mark Anderson, I'm confident with the pass rush that they're going to get."
Safety Chris Harris, back for his second tour of duty with the Bears after spending the past three seasons playing with Peppers in Carolina, knows better than any Bear what to expect.
"I've had a chance to see him up close and personal for three years, so I know the talent that he has and what he's capable of doing," Harris said. "I know what he'll bring to this defense."
Peppers doesn't seem burdened in the least by the great expectations that have come with his 81 career sacks and a six-year contract that could be worth as much as $91.5 million, even when it's his teammates.
"It's only normal," Peppers said. "I'm the new guy. I came here with a lot of hype, so it's normal for them to mention me first because there was so much attention placed on me being here. But it's a role that I've always had, being one of the more popular players on the team, so I'm used to it.
"But we still have to go out and perform. Just because I'm here doesn't really mean anything. I have to go out and perform just as well as those other guys."
Actually, Peppers is expected to perform much better than most other guys, but with 25 sacks in the past two seasons, that's an attainable goal. That difference-making ability won't manifest itself until the regular season gets under way, but Peppers has already brought something extra to the Bears.
"I couldn't have asked for anything more from him," coach Lovie Smith said. "Not just as a football player, but him moving into a leadership role fairly quickly with our team."
But much more is expected from Peppers besides a strong work ethic and leadership.
DE Julius Peppers
"When you have a dominant player like that, [the offense] will have to keep backs or tight ends in to chip guys [on pass plays]," Smith said. "If you have a dominant player, it's a trickle-down effect. Somebody eventually will get the one-on-ones that you want. We feel like we can get Julius and Tommie [Harris] in some positions where they're one-on-one, and we think they're going to win most of those battles. It's not just Tommie and Julius, even though they're going to lead the group. In order for us to be a dominant defense, our defensive line has to play up to their potential."
That's just fine with Peppers. He'll take the responsibility and carry it on his broad shoulders.
"It's something I've dealt with my whole life really, so it's nothing new," he said. "I relish the role, and I'm sure that I can live up to all the expectations and do what's expected."
NOTES AND QUOTES
Defensive players are dialing back the clock and trying to adopt the ways of their forefathers, even wearing "Monsters of the Midway," t-shirts.
"You've got to take it back to the old school," Tillman said. "You can learn a lot from your past, and back in the day, when [the Bears] had the Monsters of the Midway, they were a force to be reckoned with. That's what we're trying to do, trying to bring that back."
Tillman admits he hasn't actually watched many old Bears game on film, but he said the team has seen highlights of great Bears defensive teams of the past.
"Coach Smith showed a couple plays here and there," Tillman said. "They were brutal. I'm sure the style of football they played is somewhat illegal nowadays, with the forearms, but we'll try to get as close to that as we can without penalties."
Smith is encouraging the throwback attitude.
"We're the Chicago Bears. We have to play good defense," he said. "We're going to talk a lot about the Monsters of the Midway, getting back to that brand of football, being a tough, physical group. We feel like we can do that." ...
While players have expressed a desire to save Smith's job, which likely hinges on a trip to the postseason this year, the coach isn't the only one who would be adversely affected by another non-playoff season.
"We have to save our own jobs, not just worry about the coaches," wide receiver Devin Hester said. "We have to go out and make plays. If we go out and do the things that need to be done, then we don't have to worry about the coaches. They're going to be here forever." ...
Some of the most intense competition of training camp is expected to be at wide receiver, where Hester, Johnny Knox, Earl Bennett, Devin Aromashodu and Juaquin Iglesias will be battling for playing time and Jay Cutler passes. But that group will be battling off the field as well – at the game board.
When Bennett was asked how he planned to amuse himself during the infrequent down time during the three weeks at Olivet Nazarene University, his unexpected reply was: "I think somebody brought a Monopoly game."
"You don't understand," he said. "Me, 'Hes,' Juaquin and Johnny, we go at it." ...
Bennett was married on June 19, and there's nothing like a trip to Bourbonnais to officially mark the end of the honeymoon period.
"I've been loving it," Bennett said of married life. "It's good."
But what about the three-week separation?
"Uh, yeah," he laughed. "I'm good being away. I don't know about her, but I'm all right with it." ...
Knox was so anxious to arrive at his second training camp he made a rookie mistake and forgot to pack a key component.
"I was so excited to get down here," he said, "I forgot my Xbox."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"When people say [Devin Hester] is not really a good route runner, boy, that is ignorance at its highest level." – Receivers coach Darryl Drake.
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