Chris Conte and Major Wright are in at safety; veterans Chris Harris and Brandon Meriweather are out, at least for now. The shift could be seen as a desperation move, or an overdue reshuffling of a defensive lineup that has given up big plays all season. One thing is certain: when opponents are regularly getting an average of 400-plus yards a game against one of the NFL's formerly feared defenses, drastic changes need to be made.
Wright is in his second year and struggled earlier in the season as a starter, especially against the run. Conte is still somewhat of an unknown. Through five career games he's had three special team tackles and an additional four tackles against the New Orleans Saints in Week 2. Yet despite his lack of experience, coach Lovie Smith feels confident Conte is up to the challenge.
"Chris is ready to get out there and prove he can really play at this level" Smith said. "He had great cornering type skills in college. Has he proved himself here? I definitely think he has. We've definitely seen him make strong plays on special teams. We've seen him out there week after week in practice. He's a happy guy, a California guy who takes things as they come. We think he'll be fine. "
S Chris Conte
Harris and Meriweather both have been victims of the deep pass, allowing opposing receivers to get behind them for big gains. It's disconcerting that neither has been able to keep the offense in front of them, as that's basically all they have to worry about in coverage. Smith said because of the simplicity of the defense, Conte shouldn't have any problems understanding his assignments.
"Its not that complex," said Smith. "I think we can trust that he's picked it up already. It's not like he just came into Halas Hall yesterday. He's been around and he knows our schemes. That's not at all an issue. He knows what to do. A new player getting his fist NFL action on a Sunday night game, for that I know he's pretty excited. You've seen him today. He's definitely up and can hardly contain his enthusiasm."
While at Cal, Conte played in 50 games, starting in 17. He had 72 tackles hi senior season and was selected first-team All-Pac 10, even though it was his first year playing free safety. He's 6-3, 212, and is noted for his speed, instincts and willingness to get his jersey dirty defending the run.
"I couldn't be happier than I am right now," Conte said. "I'll be going up against guys I've only seen on TB, that's about it. The best thing I can do is to go out there and play hard, play fast. That's really the only thing I can do. It's a big opportunity and when given that chance, you're going to be sure to go out there and execute."
Rookies are often nervous in unfamiliar game day situations, something Conte will obviously have to overcome, and quickly.
"I can see that factoring in to a certain extent, probably at the beginning of the game, but once play begins you put all that behind you and do your job," Conte said. "I'm not sure I saw this coming so soon but I am confident that they obviously drafted me for a reason. I expected it to happen at some point, or at least I hoped it would happen."
Conte watched Lions running back Jahvid Best torch the Bears for a career-high 167 yards last week and now must face the league's best runner.
"It's something you never want to have happen," Conte said about Best's 88-yard jaunt in Week 5. "I'll be doing my best to be sure that it doesn't happen when the Vikings are in town. I know they have a strong running game and can break the big play on you at any time. It'll be my job to be alert and stop that from happening. It takes a lot of trust on the part of the coaches to put me out there and I'll do my best to earn that trust on Sunday."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.