Third in a series
Half of Bears starting secondary facing stiff position battles in camp
In the Cover-2 mindset practiced by coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, the defensive backfield is expected to provide certain things, among them peace of mind in the back end of the defense.
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Sometimes performance falls far, far short of expectations.
A turnstile situation at safety and questions at one cornerback position have the secondary on the brink of perhaps one of its most competitive training camps under Smith.
The reasons are simple. The overall pass defense was generally adequate but individual breakdowns came too often from too many players in a scheme that demands discipline and functioning within the system.
That is expected to change. Or else.
2011 in Review
Despite a pedestrian pass rush (29th in sacks per pass attempt) the Bears finished tied for sixth with 20 interceptions and seventh in yards per pass attempt, the latter being one of the bellwether indicators for a defense and the former a crucial turnover component.
Tillman was voted to his first Pro Bowl and nickel back D.J. Moore collected 4 interceptions for the second straight season.
Overall the Bears ranked fourth in the NFL in percentage of opponent possessions ending in three-and-outs, meaning the pass defense was doing something right on a lot of third downs. Since 2004 the Bears are No. 1 in the NFL in three-and-outs forced.
The defense also ranked eighth in opponent passer rating (79.3). The Bears allowed ratings above 90 for a game only six times and two of those were Aaron Rodgers, one Drew Brees and one Philip Rivers. The others were Matthew Stafford and Tavaris Jackson.
But seven of the interceptions were by linebackers (Lance Briggs 1, Brian Urlacher 3) or a player no longer here (Corey Graham 3).
It also was a year marked with what can only be termed as chaos in the deep regions. The Bears had six different safety combinations in the first seven games and eight for the year.
Chris Harris, brought back in 2010 to give a veteran presence at the back end of the defense, was cut midway through the season after repeated disasters. Brandon Meriweather started four games, just enough to show why Bill Belichick excused him from New England after a Pro Bowl season. Injuries to Chris Conte and Major Wright added to the problems.
Tillman had a superb season at right cornerback but Tim Jennings was replaced by Zackary Bowman for game 15 after managing just one interception through the first 14 (he recorded his second INT the following week).
The net was a year that sent the organization looking for help in the secondary (drafting safety Brandon Hardin in the third round) ahead of linebacker or defensive tackle, all positions of seemingly more immediate need.
2012 Training CampWhat to Watch
RCB Charles TillmanJonathan Wilhite
LCB Tim JenningsKelvin Hayden
3CB D.J. Moore
FS Chris ConteBrandon Hardin
SS Major WrightCraig Steltz
Others to watch: Isaiah Frey, Greg McCoy
Conte, Moore and Tillman are set going into training camp. Moore has emerged as a playmaker in his spot role and another solid year with four interceptions will enhance his value going into free agency.
The left-corner job is Jennings to lose but the Bears signed Hayden to a one-year deal, meaning he will be highly motivated, and he fits the big-corner model that facing the Packers and Lions receivers demand.
The telling point through camp is expected to be takeaways, one area that coaches wanted more of from Jennings last year. Hayden, however, played in only eight games for Atlanta last season, with one start, so is in need of a jump-restart for his career.
The Bears used their last two draft choices on cornerbacks, with Isaiah Frey from Nevada in the sixth round and Greg McCoy from TCU in the seventh. Frey is 6 feet, 180 pounds and had 5 interceptions as a senior making All-WAC first team. He will not challenge for a significant role this year but has the size the Bears want against the big receivers of the NFC North.
Conte is a former cornerback who made his share of rookie mistakes but played well enough to be a virtual lock at free safety.
Wright is anything but. He has struggled with injuries since his arrival in 2010, a surprise for someone who was all but bomb-proof during his career at Florida.
But Wright has been a mild disappointment when hes managed to stay on the field. His discipline and angles have been suspect inconsistent, more a product of over-thinking at times and over-reacting at others.
If Wright stumbles, the Bears have options. Hardin will get a serious look, but not to be overlooked is Steltz, who re-signed with the Bears this offseason after starting five games last season, including the last four.