Commentary

Oh Henry

Bears DT Melton is making name for himself after strong debut as starter

Updated: September 16, 2011, 6:14 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Forget the sack dance. If Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton matches the performance against the New Orleans Saints that he turned in last week against the Atlanta Falcons, slogans, T-shirts and jingles might be in order.

It has been a while since there has been this much optimism about the Bears' interior line. It seemed no matter what Anthony Adams was doing the past few years, or Matt Toeaina, there was always the bummer that was third-round Dusty Dvoracek's career, the disappointment of Tank Johnson or the lingering frustration that surrounded Tommie Harris.

[+] EnlargeHenry Melton
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastHenry Melton was a running back at Texas, but he's making a name for himself as a Bears defensive tackle.

Mostly it was Harris.

Even the home run acquisition of Julius Peppers did not make the Chicago defensive line a superb one until Harris' release seemed to open up all sorts of possibilities.

It is ironic that a guy such as Melton -- a short-yardage tailback as a freshman at Texas, a fourth-round draft pick and a player who drew skepticism with every Lovie Smith compliment after spending his rookie season of 2009 on injured reserve -- would be the player who represents the line's breath of fresh air.

It also might be premature as most, if not all, of the excitement surrounding Melton has been generated from Sunday's season-opening victory over Atlanta, when he had two sacks, three tackles and six quarterback hits in his first career start.

The Saints, with Pro Bowl guards Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks (who is listed as probable) on either side of former Bears center Olin Kreutz, should present a more formidable challenge this Sunday than the Falcons' new center and new guard did.

But asked about facing Kreutz, a six-time Pro Bowler himself, Melton couldn't help himself.

"Who dat?" he responded without skipping a beat, playfully mocking both Kreutz and the Saints' favorite catchphrase in one fell swoop.

"I don't even know how he acts on the field," Melton said of Kreutz. "[But] I'm sure it's going to be exciting. I'm going to give him a little pop to make sure he knows I'm here."

Kreutz is likely to give Melton a little pop in return as the third-year player barely had the chance to get acquainted with the veteran in just one year as a reserve tackle and special-teamer last season. If they had, however, there's no doubt Kreutz would have liked him.

"He's really a cool, nice guy, a little friendlier than you'd think a D-tackle would be," Bears corner D.J. Moore said of Melton.

"One thing people don't know about Henry Melton," said Adams with Melton listening in, "is that as fast as he is on the field, he is the slowest person ever. He walks with like a Diddy bop. He's always late."

The Bears' D-linemen might have joked with each other the past few years, as well, but the state of the unit's interior was not the least bit amusing to Bears fans tired of waiting for Harris to regain the form that made him a three-time Pro Bowler before knee and hamstring injuries in '06 derailed his career.

Harris' declining production, combined with the fact that the Bears had sunk $40 million into a four-year extension in '08, cast a black cloud over the interior and created a black hole in the salary cap. Even when Harris was rightfully benched by Smith, the very act was news and, until the team found a permanent replacement, wasn't the answer, either.

Melton just might be that answer, after playing primarily in nickel situations last season and finishing with 16 tackles and 2.5 sacks. The D-line's 19 of 69 Bears tackles last week accounted for 27.5 percent of the defense's total number after the line was responsible for 18.6 percent last season.

Against the Falcons, the Bears' line also had four of the team's five sacks and 17 of 20 quarterback pressures. Melton's two sacks made him the first (non-replacement) Bear to record two or more sacks in his first NFL start, this from a player who was a project at best when he was drafted in the fourth round two years ago.

"You see Peppers getting double- and triple-teamed, [but] a lot of people don't see that he gets chipped and everyone's all over him," Melton said. "You almost feel bad when you're in there one-on-one. You have to keep working."

Melton was drafted behind Jarron Gilbert and Juaquin Iglesias -- both in the third round -- in a year when the Bears traded their first-rounder and another third-round pick to Denver for Jay Cutler. Melton no doubt was allowed more time to develop after the abject failures of the other two. Either way, he said he savored several moments Sunday.

"First, the start of the game, when you get to run out there and hear your name called and then you have to perform," Melton said. "But a lot of the excitement is making the opponent one-dimensional like our offense did to give us a lead, and then us just going out there and closing the deal.

"In the position I'm in, there's nothing really better than that."

After the game, Melton said the texts, emails and phone calls poured in from family and friends, including one he singled out.

"Tommie called to say how good of a game I had," Melton said of Harris, who is not on an NFL roster. "He was always really supportive. ... Before I even really found out about him being released, he sent me the news and said 'The sky's the limit for you' and wished me luck."

It will take more than luck, they all know.

"The most important thing is confidence," Moore said. "Once you get confidence, you can beat guys on the block and it kind of becomes who you are."

And who Melton is currently is a player with plenty of potential but no sack dance.

"My sack dance is not working out too well right now," he admitted this week. "I have an idea, though. I think someone said 'Act like you're eating some deep-dish.' I love me some deep-dish, so I might try to work that out."

In the meantime, there are always the smaller moments.

"Every week you go out there, you're excited to see your name on the starting depth chart," he said. "Week in and week out, especially with injuries, you never know what can happen. So every week you go out there, it's a blessing."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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