Bears position analysis: Safety
By Brad Biggs, Tribune reporter
8:23 a.m. CST, February 13, 2013
Turnover at quarterback was a consistent theme in the first half of Lovie Smithís tenure with the Chicago Bears but that was minor compared to the almost regular rotation at safety.
The carousel rarely stopped spinning in the secondary for Smith but the Bears got it under control last season when Major Wright started all 16 games at strong safety and Chris Conte started the first 15 at free safety. That was a great stride toward consistency after the team used a different starting combination in six of the first seven games in 2011. Smith changed starting safeties 56 times in his first eight seasons, rarely avoiding regular change like he did in 2010 when Chris Harris and Danieal Manning started the entire year.
The coach often used injuries as an explanation for the turnover and there were those. But poor drafting and development ó a two-fold operation ó led to problems. There were also critical errors in personnel evaluation by the coaching staff ó see Brandon Meriweather and, before him, Adam Archuleta. But the Bears got steady play from Wright and Conte and they appear headed down the right path with the former third-round draft picks as a new coaching staff takes over.
Wright struggled to remain on the field during his first two seasons and defensive backs coach Jon Hoke, who new coach Marc Trestman is keeping aboard, said the biggest thing Wright needed was reps. He got them as he was on the field more than any other defender, missing only 23 snaps.
Conte picked up where he left off from his rookie year in 2011, too, settling into the free safety role. Both safeties deserve some credit for the excellent play of Pro Bowl cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman because the four form a cohesive unit. But both safeties are far from elite players and have room to improve their games.
Roll call: Chris Conte (signed through 2014), Brandon Hardin (signed through 2015), Craig Steltz (signed through 2013), Anthony Walters (signed through 2013), Major Wright (signed through 2013).
2012 season review: Conte led the defense in tackles for much of the first half of the season. He continued to play with good range and has the speed to make up for mistakes. He posted a career-high 12 tackles in the Oct. 1 victory at Dallas and had 11 in the Oct. 28 triumph over the Panthers. Conte wound up with 86 tackles, fifth on the team, and made two interceptions and one fumble recovery. He had three pass breakups in the Nov. 4 victory at Tennessee but if there is one thing the Bears would like to see more from him is being around the ball in the air. Conte had five pass breakups after posting only one as a rookie. With his range, he should be able to react to routes and be around the ball more regularly.
Wright showed a knack for making plays as his four interceptions ranked second on the team. He now has seven interceptions in his last 23 games. Wright finished second with 92 tackles, just one behind Tillman, and added four tackles for loss, three quarterback pressures, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. It was a big season for him turning the corner. He made two interceptions in the Week 4 victory over the Cowboys a week after he returned one 45 yards for a touchdown against the Rams.
Conte and Wright have started 21 games together in the last two seasons and in those games the Bears have limited opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 68.9 with 19 touchdown passes allowed and 31 interceptions for the defense as a whole.
In its end-of-season grades, Pro Football Focus preferred Wright over Conte.
The website ranked Wright 19th overall among 88 safeties leaguewide that qualified with enough playing time. He was tied for 19th vs. the run and only got dinged a little in terms of his pass rushing ability.
Conte ranked 56th overall even though he was 17th in coverage. Thatís because he received a very low grade vs. the run (15th worst) and he also got negative marks for getting called for four penalties ó two unnecessary roughness, one holding and one pass interference. All four resulted in first downs.
The good health of the starters limited Steltz to a minimal role on defense before a pectoral injury sent him to injured reserve at the end of the season. Walters was solid on special teams and got a brief look on defense at the end of the season.
Free agency/draft priority: For the first time in a long time this shouldnít be a high priority. The Bears have selected a safety in eight consecutive drafts dating to 2005 when Harris, now a defensive quality control assistant, was selected in the sixth round out of Louisiana-Monroe. There is a good chance that run ends in 2013.
Hardin effectively is coming back for a rookie season after he was selected in the third round and didnít play because of a neck injury in Week 2 of preseason. He was the third third-round pick invested in the position in three years. While Hardin was fast on the practice field, he also looked a little stiff for the position.
With more pressing needs elsewhere, the Bears canít afford to sink more resources into the position. Instead, they need to count on the group they have improving.
Change in coaching staff means: It might not affect the safeties as much as other positions because Hoke will return. The Bears should feel like they have some young players here with room to grow and it will be an important season for Wright, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
Bottom line: It was a good year for the safeties considering there were legitimate questions about them entering the season. They made more plays in the first half of the season when the pass rush was more consistent, but thatís the story everywhere for defensive backs. Wright was much better in his run fits and really settled into the scheme. Conte still is learning to play after starting as a cornerback primarily in college. He has good speed and hips and with any luck the game will slow down some for him in Year 3.
Chicago Bears position analysis: Safety - chicagotribune.com