The only rims at Halas Hall are on luxury cars in the players' parking lot. But that doesn't prevent Rod Marinelli from envisioning a basketball team when he looks at the Bears' nickel pass rush.
The veteran defensive coordinator sees traits in linemen Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije, Henry Melton and rookie Shea McClellin that would make an NBA scout salivate. Peppers and McClellin play end in the alignment with Idonije sliding inside next to Melton at tackle.
|Bears defensive end Julius Peppers has recorded 100 sacks since he entered the NFL in 2002, tied for third most in the league.|
"Where the league is at right now in terms of mobility at quarterback—with speed and/or guys that can step up and avoid—you need speed coming at the quarterback. You're looking for athletic guys. You're looking for athletic guys that can play in space."
The Bears' "rush men" as Marinelli refers to them have shown their speed and athleticism in recording sacks in the first two preseason games. In the opener, McClellin raced from the middle of the field to the sideline to track down the Broncos' Caleb Hanie. Last Saturday night, Idonije caught the Redskins' Robert Griffin III from behind, forcing a fumble that Peppers recovered.
Peppers has been nicknamed the "freak" for his rare combination of speed, power and athleticism. At North Carolina, the 6-7, 287-pounder won the Lombardi Award as the nation's best lineman and also compiled 18 points and 10 rebounds for the basketball team in an NCAA Tournament game.
Idonije is so athletic that he once played gunner on the punt coverage team, a highly unusually role for a 6-6, 275-pounder. One of the Bears' most versatile players, the nine-year veteran has been shifting from end to tackle in the nickel defense. Against the Redskins, Idonije recorded 2½ sacks in the first quarter alone.
"He's rushing a little bit better and he's going a little bit faster," Marinelli said. "Going inside I think helps him a little bit because it speeds up his hands and feet. Everything's faster. Everything's got to hit with speed, hit the edges much quicker. That helps him as an end."
Melton isn't a typical defensive lineman either. The 6-3, 295-pounder played running back as a freshman at Texas, rushing for 432 yards and 10 touchdowns as the Longhorns won the national championship. As a Bears rookie in 2009, Melton returned a kickoff 20 yards in a preseason game.
The Bears selected McClellin with the 19th overall pick in this year's draft in part because he's a natural athlete with quick hands and feet. As a basketball player at Marsing High School in Idaho, he averaged 16.7 points and 11.6 rebounds as a senior.
"We're getting a good feel for him as a rusher right now," Marinelli said. "He's growing every day. Right now you see everything coming a little bit smoother."
Marinelli anticipates that McClellin's role will remain the same.
"I'd love to have him continue to work with our nickel package to get him going," Marinelli said. "He's got raw speed and it's going to come. When those guys first start, they're always a step behind because the get-off is so important and the tackle sets are so quick, so that's kind of shocking for those guys.
"You've got to get him in a groove and you've just got to keep practicing and coming out and rushing."