First Look: 2011 Chicago Bears defense By John Mullin CSNChicago.com
Third in a series
What the Bears got from Jay Cutler, Mike Martz and the 2010 offense was less than bargained for, literally. But on defense, the return on investment was arguably more than expected.
Only three teams allowed fewer points than the Bears, and two (Pittsburgh, Green Bay) of those (Baltimore No. 3) are in the Super Bowl. The only team that allowed fewer rushing yards per game (Pittsburgh) is also in the Super Bowl.
Only Green Bay and Pittsburgh held opposing quarterbacks to a lower combined passer rating than the Bears (74.4). Only New Orleans (13) allowed fewer than the Bears’ 14 passing touchdowns and the Bears allowed more than one passing TD in just two games this season.
The Bears tied with Pittsburgh at No. 3 in takeaways with 35.
But as good as the 2010 Bears defense was, with members rating it at times as better than the unit that got the Bears to the 2006 Super Bowl, the plan is to upgrade it.
Priority area: Always up front
The Angelo personnel regime has invested draft picks in both offensive and defensive lines. Two No. 1’s were spent on tackles (Marc Colombo ’02, Chris Williams ’08) and two No. 1’s were invested on defensive linemen (Michael Haynes ’03, Tommie Harris ’04).
But the focus on defense sharpens in the middle and late rounds. In nine drafts Angelo has picked offensive linemen in rounds 2-5 just twice (Terrence Metcalf ’02, Josh Beekman ’07). The Bears have used sixth- and seventh-round picks on offensive linemen, where a hit is found money; they aim considerably higher on the other side of the ball.
None of those were close to the level of Peppers but the pattern of keeping a strength strong was holding true. Safety was arguably a more critical need but was not a priority or “value” position in the Bears’ structure, and that spot was addressed with the first ’10 pick going for Major Wright rather than pursue the likes of Antrel Rolle at stratospheric prices.
The play of Peppers, sufficient to place him fourth in voting for defensive player of the year, was all the Bears had envisioned. If the sack total (8) was less than ideal, the overall impact was felt both in quantity (the defense with Peppers’ addition and Brian Urlacher’s return from injury became one of the NFL’s best) and quality (Peppers was immediately elected with Urlacher as co-captains of the defense).
If anything, coaches might be questioned on why Mark Anderson was given so much playing time over first Alex Brown, then Idonije, when both were clearly the better all-around players.
Corey Wootton needed time to develop an NFL game but his development showed as the season progressed. And just as Gary Fencik will go down as the last person to catch a Joe Namath pass, Wootton will be remembered in NFL history as the last player to sack Brett Favre. But if that was the finish of Favre’s career, Wootton’s arrow is pointing decidedly in the opposite direction.
The Bears signed Nick Reed to a futures contract. Reed was a 2009 seventh-round pick by Seattle and played 16 games that season for the Seahawks when personnel director Tim Ruskell was in charge there.
Nose tackle Anthony Adams is a priority re-signing and the expectation is that they will fortify defense perhaps ahead even of offense; keeping a strength strong is a must.
If tackle play after Adams was not exceptional last season, it had significant positives. Henry Melton survived roster competition with Jarron Gilbert in training camp to become one of the bright spots as a pass rusher and was part of rotations both at tackle and end.
Matt Toeaina took Tommie Harris’ job early in the year and played his way into a multi-year contract extension. He saw Harris take the job back late in the season but did post his first 2 career sacks and fumble recovery and is set in the interior rotation. The Bears have hopes for former Kansas City Chief/Carolina Panther Tank Tyler, a third-round pick who started 19 games for Kansas City and signed to a futures contract.
Harris’ return is very unlikely give his roster bonus, workout bonus and salary hits facing the Bears. He delivered some impact plays in spots but lost his starting job much of the season to Toeaina even though with fatherhood and other elements he matured through much of the past year.
“I learned that it’s not what you go through, but it’s how you go through it that will determine the outcome,” Harris said. “You can either get in a situation where you fold if things are not going the way you want it, or you work harder to get out of that situation, and I learned how to persevere through that...
“I grew up. I stopped pointing the finger at everybody else and I paid attention to myself, which was the most difficult thing to do."
Harris could return at drastically reduced money but the expectation is that he will look first for a change of scenery for a restart to a once very promising career.
The same applies to Marcus Harrison, a third-rounder who started nine games in 2009 and appeared to be an emerging force. But Harrison was active for only five games last season, took a major step backwards and needs a strong training camp at this point to stay on the roster.
The organization is topped out on salary at the linebacker spot and has elite talent in place with Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. The concern is that both are on the wrong side of 30, but if there is falloff, it is difficult to discern in two of the NFL’s savviest playmakers.
The issue at strong-side linebacker is another matter because of injuries. Hunter Hillenmeyer (concussion), Nick Roach (knee) and starter Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee) were all down at different times last season and only Hillenmeyer is currently under contract.
Brian Iwuh is a top special-teams player (third in tackles) and has been a spot starter during his career, although his one Bears start was for Briggs and Roach is a stronger choice when healthy.
Roach was tendered at the second-round level last year and is no lock to return if a starter opportunity elsewhere presents itself. Tinoisamoa is again a free agent who, like Roach and Hillenmeyer, is a quality team presence. The question becomes how much the Bears can risk at a two-down position.
Not all that long ago the Bears believed they were set for several years minimum at cornerback. Significant multi-year financial commitments were made in Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher.
The plan effectively ended week one of the 2009 season when Vasher, after a shaky 2008, was benched along with safety Kevin Payne following a breakdown at Green Bay resulting in a Bears loss. Vasher started once more, in Game 16, but was cut in the offseason.
Zackary Bowman showed promise in Vasher’s place and was handed Tillman’s job at left cornerback to open this season and Tillman shunted over to right cornerback. But Bowman himself was benched in the Green Bay game in week three, replaced by Tim Jennings.
The problem facing the Bears is that Jennings and D.J. Moore, whose play at nickel back produced 44 tackles, 4 interceptions, one for a touchdown, and a sack, is that neither is taller than 5-9. Add to that Tillman entering his ninth season at age 30 and the Bears have a looming need this offseason or next.
No player has been used in more positions than safety Danieal Manning but his future is likely outside of Chicago. The Bears floated contract possibilities with him during last season but Manning wasn’t buying at the Bears’ price, particularly after being unhappy at the tender-offer situation that effectively took him out of any free agency opportunities last offseason.
Manning had perhaps the best season of his four in the NFL and will draw interest elsewhere. Whether it is to the level he seeks is problematic, but the Bears have Wright and Chris Harris in place and will not get into any bidding war.