Before Jared Allen fell into their laps at a tapas restaurant during the 2014 owners meetings, the Bears had acquired two big-name defensive free agents.
A year later, outside linebackers Willie Young and Lamarr Houston found themselves in unfamiliar territory — the second quarter of the fourth game of the preseason, an eventual 24-0 victory Thursday against the Browns at Soldier Field.
The Bears held out 30 players, most of them locks to make the team when the team cuts down to 53 by midday Saturday. Houston and Young — who signed free agent deals worth a combined $44 million last season — started alongside three second-year players and three rookies.
“It’s always fun when you go out there and take snaps,” Young said. “It’s been a long road for me this year, but obviously back up and running now. Felt good to be out there. I feel good right now where we are, physically, yes.”
At the start of training camp, Young admitted he knew little about outside linebacker, particularly dropping into pass coverage.
“I went from ground zero to back up and playing again,” he said. “It just depends on how you want to grade me — you can do that.”
While a scenario exists where the Bears decide Young isn’t a perfect fit in their 3-4 scheme, his talent would be hard to walk away from. He posted 10 sacks last year and has been disruptive since returning in preseason Game 2 from a December Achilles tendon injury.
“He’s an explosive guy off what we saw from tape last year,” coach John Fox said. “Just getting him back confident — and how that feels to push off on and explode off of, and just the normal transition of any player coming back from injury — I’ve been pleased with what I’ve seen.”
Both he and Houston — who is familiar with outside linebacker from his Raiders days —clearly outclassed the lower-tiered competition Thursday. Houston forced a Darius Jennings fumble early in the second quarter that was recovered by preseason superstar Terrance Mitchell.
Twelve plays later, starting quarterback David Fales caught the Browns in a blitz, threw a quick pass to Marc Mariani and watched him follow a Josh Bellamy block for a 19-yard touchdown. Fales, ordinarily the third-stringer, finished 14 for 18 for 131 yards, a 134 passer rating and two scores, including a third-quarter pass to Ify Umodu.
Veteran safety Sherrod Martin jumped a pass from Thaddeus Lewis to Vince Mayle in the third quarter for a 25-yard pick-six score.
Young and Houston’s participation Thursday was because of circumstance, too; Allen and Pernell McPhee sat out, as did Sam Acho, who was sidelined all week by an illness.
Rookie Kyle Woestmann — who had two sacks — and David Bass were the only outside linebackers left.
“I think it’s important for guys to get ready for the regular season,” Fox said. “(Young and Houston) hadn’t had a whole lot of playing time. Both are coming off of fairly serious injuries from a year ago. They are getting a better feel for our scheme and defense. All of those are important matters when you’re getting ready for a regular season.”
Young had a first-quarter sack one week after recording three quarterback hurries in 34 snaps in Indianapolis. Houston’s preseason ended with two sacks.
Young and Houston could provide a strong second unit behind McPhee and Allen — or, more intriguingly, members of a pass rush nickel defensive line alongside them.
“They’ve worked hard,” coach John Fox said. “They’ve done everything we’ve asked. They’ve managed themselves pretty well throughout. Now we get to start a real race, and we’re looking forward to it.”
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