For nearly a decade, the Chicago Bears searched for a pair of competent, consistent safeties. The search was fruitless for years. During his nine seasons as head coach, Lovie Smith selected a safety in all but one draft.
Yet it appeared the search was over with the emergence of Chris Conte and Major Wright the past two years. Neither player was a Pro Bowler but both showed the requisite skill set and on-field growth to be considered long-term starters at the position.
Things got off to a slow start in training camp, as both Conte and Wright were beat far too often in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. At the time, it was easy to give them a pass, as there's no real pass rush during practice, which puts the safeties at a severe disadvantage. Yet heading into the regular season, there was no reason to believe Conte and Wright would regress.
Yet that's exactly what we saw during 16 contests in 2013. Week after week the duo missed tackles and made mistakes in coverage. And when the campaign was on the line in the season finale, a blown coverage by Conte cost the Bears a trip to the playoffs.
Let's break down the play of Chicago's safeties to see if there is hope on the current roster, or if wholesale changes are necessary.
Conte was extremely inconsistent but he had his moments. He intercepted three passes and forced two fumbles. His five total takeaways were second most on the defense in 2013.
Yet beyond his penchant for forcing turnovers, Conte had a very rough season. Opposing quarterbacks had a 104.5 passer rating and completed 57.9 percent of passes when throwing at Conte, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF). He also missed 16 tackles, which was the most on the team, and gave up four touchdowns. His 21.5 yards per catch against was also the highest on the roster.
Conte's struggles against the run stem from poor angles of attack. He has consistently struggled throughout his career in cutting off runners at the second level. As the free safety, Conte is the last line of defense, meaning every missed tackle resulted in a big gain for opposing offenses.
As bad as Conte was, Wright was worse. In coverage, he led the team with five touchdowns allowed, allowed a 77.8 completion percentage and a 146.8 QB rating against, per PFF. Remember, 156.8 is the highest rating a quarterback can attain, so in essence, opposing passers were nearly perfect when throwing at Wright. He also missed 15 tackles, had zero tackles for a loss and did not have a single pass deflection.
On the positive side, he had two interceptions, one of which he returned 38 yards for a score, and forced two fumbles. But overall, Wright did very little right in 2013.
Steltz was on the field for 123 defensive snaps last season as an injury fill-in. He's one of the better special teams players on the team but Steltz was only marginally better than the starters on defense. In limited snaps, he missed four tackles and had a 109.7 QB rating against. He's a quality member of the team's third phase but he's not a long-term option on the back end.
Bears 2013 S Grade: D-
Chicago's starters forced nine turnovers, which is the only reason we didn't give them an "F". Other than that, they have very little to hang their hat on, as they consistently struggled in every area of the game.
Wright will soon be a free agent and it's extremely unlikely he'll be re-signed. Conte has one more year left on his rookie contract and will have to make a dramatic turnaround if he's going to see playing time next year or beyond.
Anthony Walters was an active member of the roster all season yet didn't play any defensive snaps. Obviously, coordinator Mel Tucker and defensive backs coach John Hoke do not have any faith in Walters.
So it appears the Bears are going to have to start from scratch, again, at the safety position. Expect GM Phil Emery to be searching for back-end starters in both free agency and the draft this offseason.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.