In 2013 the Bears defense was a shell of it’s former self. It resembled nothing of the defense Bears fans have come to expect in the windy city. I have to admit towards the end of the Lovie Smith era wondering if the cover two defense had passed it’s window of effectiveness, but what I witnessed last year was more than an outdated scheme. True the scheme over the last few years never seemed to measure up against a well coached team with a good line, and a decent quarterback. But in 2013 the defenders looked confused, lost, there was no continuity, it seemed the problem was more than missing the starters. Yes, there were injuries, and yes the talent was thin, but the drop off was steep. Did Brian Urlacher’s presence on the field serve to provide such valuable leadership? Was he the only one holding that once proud defense from going over the edge of the cliff? There was no question he was not the physical specimen he once was, but was his presence as quarterback of the defense that underestimated? Was it scheme, injuries, talent, or coaching? This is the question.
Fast forward to 2014, after an off-season committed to adding talent to the defense. After what appears to have been an effective draft that added key defensive personnel, we do not have a long wait to see if any of these personnel changes along with Mel Tucker’s own scheme has an impact.
Let’s look at the state of the defense by position group:
Staff: Mel Tucker was retained as defensive Coordinator while adding defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni and Clint Hurtt (Asst.) to replace sacked Defensive line coach Mike Phair. Reggie Herring was brought on to coach Linebackers replacing Tim Tibesar who was also let go in the off-season. Each of these new coaches have successful track records that will hopefully transfer to the Bears. This season will be an important one for Mel Tucker to show if he has what it takes to revitalize a Bears defense which was near the bottom of the league last year. This year’s defense will determine if it was injuries, Tucker having to use Lovie’s scheme, or coaching that caused the collapse.
Defensive Line: The addition of Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Willie Young on the defensive line is a tremendous upgrade in talent, with those additions the position becomes deeper with some of last year’s starters providing depth and rotation. Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson were selected in the draft providing more talent on the defensive line, which on paper looks like the most improved aspect of the team. Stephen Paea , Jeremiah Ratliff, Cornelius Washington, David Bass are all returning, and newcomer Trevor Scott made the 53 man roster. With the new talent and upgrade in Coaching it is hard not to be optimistic.
Lance Briggs is the only holdover from the Lovie Smith era. 2013 Draft picks Khaseem Greene and John Bostic are still on the roster along with Shea McClellin who was moved from defensive end to strong side linebacker position, we will see how this experiment works. He has all the physical tools to make the transition and many thought he was being chosen as Urlacher’s successor when he was drafted. 2013 free agent D.J. Williams and 2014 un-drafted free agent Christian Jones round out the position. The depth chart has the starters as Lance Briggs at Weakside, D.J. Williams in the Middle, with Shea McClellin at Strong side. This is another position of strength on the team with experience at each position and the backups have some playing time with Khaseem Greene and John Bostic seeing some time on the field last year. Christian Jones who some had projected as early as the second or third round was picked up as a un-drafted free agent, his stock feel after a diluted urine sample, he has turned heads in camp and pre-season. There is quality depth at this position.
Defensive Backs: Veterans Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings return along with Derrick McManus and Kelvin Hayden. Kyle Fuller was selected in the first round of the draft along with un-drafted free agent Demontre Hurst. There appeared to be an experiment in the off-season with Tim Jennings playing nickel and Kyle Fuller lining up opposite of Charles Tillman, but the depth chart shows Tillman and Jennings as the starters with Fuller behind Jennings, and McManus behind Tillman. We have to assume that Fuller is the third corner on the depth chart and most likely will be in the nickel sooner than later
Safety: What I find the most interesting story line leading into week 1 is Chris Conte. He was the scapegoat for the Bears defense much of the season last year (and rightfully so), an exclamation point to the season was his blown coverage on Randall Cobb against Green bay which effectively eliminated the Bears from the playoffs. In the first game he is in the mix for a starting job at Free Safety. How can he go from bust to boon after a good training camp and one preseason game in which he played admirably yet received a concussion? I know he earned the nick name the “Eagle” among players because of his range, speed and athleticism, but my concern isn’t with physical ability but mental acuity. When he made mistakes, they were huge last year. What did he learn in the off-season that he hadn’t learned since being drafted in 2011? Conte was ranked as the 82nd out of 86 in safety performance during the 2013 season according to Pro Football Focus. Other analysts say that he wasn’t that bad, it was the defensive line’s lack of pressure that exposed Him. My question is exposed what? His inability to diagnose a play and get into proper alignment, or his lack of football IQ for the position? I fear that everything that the former beloved Safety Mike Brown was . . . Conte isn’t. In the offseason the Bears picked up M.D. Jennings, Ryan Mundy, Danny McCray, Adrian Wilson, and drafted Brock Vereen to bolster the safety position. All but Wilson and Jennings remain on the roster with no true safety on the practice squad, so the staff is counting on two of these three or Conte to be their starters. The depth chart shows Mundy and McCray as the starters.
I have to admit to being cautiously optimistic about the Bears chances to be a much improved defense in 2014. The caution in my optimism has to do with my lack of confidence in Mel Tucker and the Bears unsettled safety position. On paper this team is better in almost every position on defense, unless Conte starts and is as bad as last year. I know preseason is just that, but the game against the Seahawks was maddening. The third game of the pre-season is supposed to be the “dress rehearsal” for the regular season, it looked as if the bears did not know the script. The only thing that did stand out from that game was the defensive line, they looked improved, every one else. . . well it was a preseason game right? Perhaps installing a game plan against a team will make that much of a difference in the regular season. The truth is the defense could not possibly be worse than last year with all the talent upgrades, I just hope they are at least average. I have hope that they will be at least average, but I also think maybe, just maybe that they will be even more than that. Mel Tucker you are on the clock……