In the Chicago Bears secondary, much of the attention this season has been paid to cornerback Tim Jennings, who leads the league with four interceptions. Yet right behind him is safety Major Wright, whose three picks are second most in the NFL.
Wright intercepted two passes against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night, one of which was tipped by Jennings. In Week 3 against the St. Louis Rams, Wright returned his first pick of the year 45 yards for a touchdown. It was the second interception return TD of his career. He's the 26th player in Bears history with multiple interception return touchdowns and the first safety to do it since Mike Brown.
"That's what our coaches preach on every day, every day of the week," Wright said after the victory over Dallas. "Takeaways. Takeaways. Takeaways."
Wright has six interceptions in 15 career starts. A question mark heading into 2012 due to an inconsistent and injury marred 2011, Wright has made huge strides this year, his third in the NFL.
"He has continued to understand the defense," said teammate and fellow safety Craig Steltz. "That puts you in a position to make plays and he's making plays and getting the ball back to our offense."
For Wright, the talent has always been there. He's a fast, athletic player and an aggressive tackler. Injuries have hampered some of his development but so have in-game mental lapses. Last season, Wright made a number of mistakes, which often included allowing defenders to get behind him, a huge mistake in Lovie Smith's defense. Wright also missed a number of tackles, due mainly to break downs in technique.
This year, he has cured many of those issues and is playing at entirely new level.
"Major Wright has put together two good football games [in a row], and just not ‘Yeah, I know he scored one and had a couple of big interceptions' but just his overall play," Smith said today, "as has been our safety play, Chris Conte too."
So far, the duo of Wright and Conte has had a lot of success. In 10 starts together, opposing quarterbacks have completed 59.8 percent of their passes for 263.2 yards per game, with eight touchdowns and 19 interceptions, good for a 65.9 cumulative passer rating. That's not too shabby for a pair of relative youngsters – Wright is 24 and Conte is 23.
"They're getting better every week. As a defense, that's what we try to do," Steltz said. "You want to continue to not make the mistakes you made in Week 1, 2 and 3, and continue to get better. We look at it as you want to go like a tidal wave, continue to get better throughout the season, so you're playing your best ball next week. That's what they continue to do."
Conte has been rock solid at free safety. He has one interception, also the result of a Jennings deflection, and is second on the team in tackles (22). As the last line of defense, Conte has done a great job of keeping the defense in front of him and limiting the deep ball.
"He continues to constrict the defense and make sure no balls get behind him," said Steltz.
Conte has also been great in run support, one of the many reasons the defense is ranked third in the NFL against the run.
The Bears have been searching for a stable starting safety duo since 2004, when Smith took over as head coach. The club has drafted a safety in all but one draft since then, while also bringing in numerous underachieving veterans like Chris Harris, Adam Archuleta and Brandon Meriweather. For years, it seems like the team has a new starting safety combination each week. Last season alone, the Bears used eight different safety duos.
"I just know that the safety position has been discussed so much on the amount of combinations that we have had around here," Smith said. "We like the two that we have right now; they're good football players. Our hope is that we can keep these two same guys out on the field for some time."
Wright and Conte are both young and talented and have done well playing side by side. The more they play together, the better they should get. Barring injury, they appear to be the answer on the back end of the defense, which should finally halt the safety carousel.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.