Shea McClellin flipped his hips and turned to cover Jaguars wide receiver Mike Brown late in the second quarter of Thursday's exhibition game.
The Bears strong-side linebacker was running stride for stride as Brown came out of his break on a deep out route. As the ball -- a perfectly thrown dart by rookie Blake Bortles arrived -- McClellin reached out with his left arm and dived in an attempt to break up the pass.
Had the ball not been delivered so precisely, McClellin could have made the play downfield. And it was a play McClellin would like back.
"I reached with this (left) arm and I should have used my right," he said. "I still have to get used to getting the techniques down. It will come. I could have wrapped up with the guy (using the other arm). If I dive, I have to make that play."
Brown -- again, a wide receiver, not a tight end or a running back -- wound up with a 24-yard gain. The Bears want to prevent giving up big chunks, but in the development of McClellin, transitioning from defensive end, the improvement from Week 1 of the preseason was apparent.
"He played better and that was a good first step," defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. "He got off blocks well. He shed blocks well. I thought he made progress. We expect him to take another step."
The Bears have not announced their plans for the regular season, but nothing has changed since training camp opened. McClellin is the starter on the strong side in the base defense. He comes off the field in the sub package with middle linebacker D.J. Williams and Jon Bostic playing alongside three-down performer Lance Briggs in nickel. Barring something unexpected, this is how the defense will line up Sept. 7 in the season opener against the Bills.
McClellin went from missing four tackles against the Eagles in the first exhibition game to making four tackles against the Jaguars, including a stick of running back Jordan Todman for a 3-yard loss when he shot the gap past left tackle Luke Joeckel.
After spending the offseason and training camp essentially "tagging" ball carriers in practice, McClellin took poor angles against the Eagles. It can happen when players are getting used to live competition in full pads. Those angles were corrected in a week and he was physical with his hands at the line of scrimmage.
In 30 snaps against the Jaguars, the only glaring error came when he got sucked in on a bootleg and was late recovering. He played two subsequent bootlegs better, but it will be interesting to see how he reacts Friday against Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. The Seahawks are very effective in their bootleg and rollout game, and Wilson used play action on 34 percent of his pass attempts last season, the highest percentage in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders.
The strong-side linebacker does a lot of the dirty work as a two-down player in a 4-3 front. It's a position for a grinder, and there usually are not a lot of opportunities for splash plays. Think Nick Roach and before him Hunter Hillenmeyer for the Bears. McClellin is going to have power running games headed right at him. He must handle his assignment. Sometimes he'll be called on to make the play; sometimes his job will be to turn the ball carrier inside. But the Bears very well could be in nickel personnel more than half the time.
If McClellin can continue to settle into a position he hasn't played since college, the Bears should be able to salvage the 2012 first-round pick. If they're going to get real value out of him, he'll eventually need to become a three-down performer. Once the regular season kicks off, talk of development and learning a position is harder to handle if it isn't accompanied by production.
"I felt a lot more comfortable than the first game," McClellin said. "Still getting my keys with everything and I am still learning the position. It takes time and that is something a lot of people don't understand switching to a new position. Overall, I am feeling good."
There will be occasional opportunities for McClellin to rush the passer, but zone-blitz opportunities probably will not come frequently. General manager Phil Emery cited McClellin as the team's most effective pass rusher last season. It's not a statistic his front office cooked up. STATS ranked McClellin 28th in the NFL among pass rushers last season with a minimum of 20 pressures. McClellin had 23 and was successful 6.4 percent of the time. By comparison, Jared Allen (41 pressures) was successful on 6.3 percent of rush downs. Julius Peppers was at 4.1.
Still, the Bears could not keep McClellin at end because he wasn't making enough plays.
"All that is on the stat sheet is the sacks," McClellin said.
He probably won't pile up many sacks at strong-side linebacker, but he can find a path to production if he continues to improve.
"Right now it is preseason and you are still getting the hang of things," McClellin said. "I will be good."
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