The Bears' starting safeties are always written in pencil, given the frequent turnover that has characterized those positions for the past seven years. There have been a total of 51 changes in the starting lineup at free safety and strong safety since Lovie Smith became head coach in 2004.
Rookie free safety Chris Conte has made a favorable impression as a starter the past two games, and he has a chance to bring some consistency to the position. His goal-line interception in London, his first as a pro, prevented a touchdown. Just as importantly, the third-round pick helped eliminate big plays by the Bucs' offense.
"He did a good job, like we expected," Smith said. "Everything you're looking for in a safety he has. Good size (6-2, 203 pounds), speed, range, (and) it's always good to get production. Defensive backs go to the Pro Bowl more based on how many interceptions they get. So it was good for him to get that first interception under his belt.
"The last two weeks I've liked everything the guy has done, and he'll just continue to get better."
S Chris Conte
Conte has had no significant assignment errors, and his reads have been accurate, which have helped the defense curtail the big plays that undermined it in the loss to the Lions.
The Bucs' longest gain was 24 yards, and that was their only pickup of more than 20.
"Just being able to secure the deep half of the field, and to not give up big plays is huge," Conte said. "You can tell that our pass rush is spectacular, and our rush defense is great, we held them to something ridiculous (30 yards on the ground). I thought we did a great job and overall played great defense."
Conte's interception is the only one this season by a starter in the secondary. Nickel back D.J. Moore and middle linebacker Brian Urlacher have three each, and weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs has the other. Conte got his pick just by doing his assignment in the defense. "Really, I just read the quarterback," he said. "As a middle-of-the-field safety, especially in the red zone, you try to predetermine because you can't get out to the corners. There's only so much you can really help on.
"As the quarterback looked to his left, I just broke on the ball and took a quick peek at the wide receiver and saw that he was going to get to the ball before me. So I was thinking 'hit.' I saw the ball at the last second bounce off his hands. I was thinking, 'I can get this ball.' I ended up with the ball in my hands. It may be part luck, but being in the right place at the right time, good things happen."
Not only was it a huge play for the defense, but it was big personally for the 22-year-old, who played just one full season of safety at the University of California after switching from cornerback.
"Tons," Conte said when asked how much the interception helped his confidence. "I think my strength is my ability to break on the ball, and all the coaches really like the way I can transition and break on the ball. To be able to make a play and do what they think I'm good at, it really helps my confidence and makes me believe that I can be a successful player."
--The Bears didn't draft offensive tackle Gabe Carimi in the first round so he could sit on the bench, and now that he's healthy enough to practice following a knee injury in Week 2, the process of introducing him back into the starting lineup has begun.
The problem is that the current offensive line, with Lance Louis at Carimi's right tackle spot and Chris Spencer filling in for Louis at right guard, has played well in back-to-back victories, and continuity is vital on the offensive line.
Coach Lovie Smith has plenty of time to reach a decision before the next game on Nov. 7, and he will rely heavily on the input of offensive line coach Mike Tice to determine who starts against the Eagles.
"I don't think it's hard making many decisions," Smith said. "The guys tell you (by their performance). Right now we like the group we've had on the field the last couple weeks. They've played good ball. And to be able to add a first-round draft pick who was playing great football before, that's a great position to be in."
WR Earl Bennett
--Wide receiver Earl Bennett has enjoyed watching his teammates make big plays during the two-game win streak as he continued to heal from the chest injury that has sidelined him since Week Two. But enough is enough; Bennett wants in on the action, and he's expected to be on the field the next time the Bears play, on Monday night, Nov. 7 against the Eagles in Philadelphia. "I'm a competitor," he said. "I like to go out, play, play hard, and we definitely got to keep this win streak going. They've been playing great.
"Everybody's been making plays every time they get their chance, winning one-on-one matchups and getting (yards) after the catch. I've been missing it and I'm excited about getting back."
Quarterback Jay Cutler can't wait to have Bennett back.
"He's very stable," Cutler said. "He's going to be in the right spot. He's going to make plays after the catch. He's an every-down receiver that I would love to see back on the field."
--After Thursday afternoon's scaled-down practice, players will be off until Monday. Before they go their separate ways, coach Lovie Smith's message will be similar to what it has been in the past.
"We want to heal up," he said. "Mentally, we want to get away from football. We want them to get away and spend some time with their family and enjoy college games and just kind of enjoy life getting ready for this next push."
BY THE NUMBERS: 51. Changes the Bears have made in the starting lineup at the two safety spots since Lovie Smith became head coach in 2004.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Monday was a long day. What's today, Wednesday?" -- Bears QB Jay Cutler when asked if his body clock was back on time after Sunday's game in London.
--RB Matt Forte has led the Bears in receptions in five of seven games.
--LB Lance Briggs, who was named NFC defensive player of the week for his interception and 10 tackles against the Bucs, has had double-figure tackles in four of seven games this season.
--DE Julius Peppers has 30 quarterback pressures, including eight in Week 7 against the Bucs, according to Bears statistics.
--DB Corey Graham leads the Bears with 10 special teams tackles. He had 25 solos last season, more than twice as many as any other player.
--WR/RS Devin Hester is averaging 26.8 yards on 15 kickoff returns, 2.4 yards more than his career average of 24.4.
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