When most think of the Chicago Bears' defensive secondary, they consider cornerback Charles Tillman the anchor – having been a starter since 2003 – and then myriad moving pieces around him. This might give the false impression that the secondary is a weak point on this defense. While it surely isn't the strongest aspect of the group – that would be the linebacker unit, which boasts two All Pros – the secondary is not nearly the liability most make it out to be.
Pro Football Focus has developed some new numbers that can help us evaluate what the Bears have in their cornerbacks. One of the metrics compares the number of snaps a corner is on the field for with the number of catches said player gives up to opposing receivers. These are complicated metrics that only tell part of the story but they do highlight a few notable trends.
First off, it was somewhat surprising to find Tillman was targeted 20 more times over the course of last season than the other starting cornerback Tim Jennings. This surely has to do with Tillman constantly covering the opposing team's No. 1 receiver, and the fact Jennings didn't become a starter until Week 3, but it does highlight the fact opposing offenses are not afraid to throw Tillman's way.
CB Tim Jennings
Yet despite being frequently targeted, P-Nut performed admirably. Of the 111 passes thrown his way, he only allowed 67 completions. When factoring in his 751 coverage snaps, we find that on only 8 percent of passing plays does the opposing offense complete a pass to the zone or receiver Tillman is covering – good for eighth best in the NFL.
Right behind him is Jennings, who allowed just 46 receptions during 621 coverage snaps – 8.1 percent, or 10th best in the league. Again, these numbers are not an exact science, but they do show how effective Chicago's starting cornerbacks were last season, and why Bears brass chose not to select a cornerback in this year' draft.
A while back, we discussed the success third cornerback D.J. Moore had as a blitzer last year. His performance putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks was his most valuable trait. Yet when it comes to dropping back and covering receivers, his game needs work. Despite being on the field for just 446 coverage snaps, Moore allowed 52 completions, or 16 percent. That is double both Tillman and Jennings, and 68th out of the 83 corners that had 300 or more coverage snaps in 2010. So don't expect Moore to become a starter anytime soon.
We can use these numbers to help us predict how Chicago will proceed with its roster going forward. Zach Bowman will definitely get another shot to play next season, as will second-year player Joshua Moore, but if neither steps up and overtakes Tillman or Jennings, the Bears should still be fine on the outside.
In the Bears' Cover 2 though, coverage skills aren't the only talents secondary players must possess, as all must be sure tacklers as well. This is doubly important at the safety position, which constitutes the last line of defense. A missed tackle by the free safety could turn an eight-yard gain into a 60-yard, game-breaking touchdown. No other position has as much riding on the players' ability to make tackles.
Here though, the Bears show very well. In his rookie season last year – albeit in limited playing time – Major Wright was one of only three safeties not to miss a single tackle all season. In each of his 18 attempts he brought the ball carrier down. Additionally, Danieal Manning only missed three of his 71 total tackle attempts. Just once in every 22 tackle attempts did Manning not bring down the ball carrier, which was ninth best in the NFL last season.
Tackling numbers are hard to skew – a missed tackle is a missed tackle no matter how you look at it – so these numbers give us a good idea of why re-signing Manning is so important to the team. If a new CBA is agreed upon and the league operates under the rule that unrestricted free agents need only accrue four years, Manning – who turned down a three-year, $6 million contract least season – will most likely sign elsewhere. Yet if the league operates under 2010 rules, which is becoming more likely by the day, Manning will qualify only as a restricted free agent, which raises his odds of re-signing significantly.
Yet even if the Bears are unable to hang on to Manning, the team shouldn't feel too bad about plugging in Wright. He hasn't been tested all that much in coverage situations, so it remains to be seen how he'll fit into coach Lovie Smith's Cover 2 scheme, but the team at least knows he is a sure tackler. In a defensive system that concedes the short pass and relies on its player's ability to quickly bring down receivers, Wright's tackling ability should give Chicago confidence in its back-line secondary going forward.
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