At all levels of football, including the NFL, the quarterback must know what every player on offense is supposed to do on every single snap. In this way, a quarterback can serve as a field general, one who can direct his teammates to their proper positions and make necessary adjustments on the fly.
Quarterbacks who do not understand every nuance of the playbook don't typically last long at the professional level. At that critical position, mental preparation is crucial.
For the Chicago Bears, the same can be said about the safety position on the defensive side of the ball. Located behind the rest of his teammates, a safety has the best view of the field and is in position to serve as the eyes and, in essence, the brain of the secondary.
"We view the safety position as the quarterback on defense," Bears safety coach Chris Harris told Bear Report. "I know the MIKE linebacker calls out the plays but at the safety position, you have to direct traffic within the back seven. You have to make sure that all guys are on the exact same page, when it comes to coverages, when it comes to checks.
"At the safety, you know responsibilities. You have to know not only your responsibilities but it's very important for you to know all of the other six guys in the back seven, what their responsibilities are as well, so if a breakdown does occur, you can fix it right there after the snap."
The Bears are painfully aware of what happens when a safety isn't in tune with the rest of his teammates. The 2013 campaign was lost due to a missed call by Chris Conte in the season finale.
"The quickest way to get beat is if you're on the wrong page on the back end," Harris said. "I think it's vital to learn the game and to be a smart football player."
This is much easier said than done, especially for the Bears, who have a number of new faces at the safety position. Making things harder is the fact Conte sat out all of the offseason programs due to shoulder surgery. His status for training camp is still up in the air.
As a result, Chicago has been starting two new faces on the back end of the secondary: free-agent acquisition Ryan Mundy and fourth-round rookie Brock Vereen. The task of molding defensive quarterbacks is hard enough, considering the demands of the position, yet doing it with two players new to the system, one of whom has never played a snap in the NFL, is a much tougher task.
"I think so far we've done a very good job of getting on the same page and doing what the coaches ask us to do," Mundy said.
A five-year NFL veteran, Mundy has a few notches on his belt, yet he didn't earn a full-time starting gig until last year with the New York Giants. So while he's seasoned, he's not necessarily experienced.
Yet, for as long as Conte is out, it will be Mundy's job, along with the coaching staff, to help ease Vereen's learning curve.
"I think the biggest thing that I can do is just let him know that I'm available," said Mundy. "Whatever he needs, whether that's regarding something on the field or off the field, just let him know that I'm here for any questions that he may have."
The amount of information Vereen is being asked to absorb is immense.
"The great safeties, no matter how far back you go, they do know everything," Vereen said. "They know what the D-line is doing, they know what the linebackers are doing, and I know that I need to get to that level."
Getting to that level will not be easy, even for a player as intelligent as Vereen. He may be an athletic specimen but if he's making mental mistakes on the back end once the games count, he'll hurt the team.
"Now that I've had 16 practices under me, I know what I'm lacking at. I know what I need to get better at," said Vereen. "They're mostly mental and those will definitely be the focal points going forward."
The Bears believe Vereen has upside but, even though he worked with the first team during OTAs and minicamp, the team knows he's a work in progress.
"I think the simple fact that we've rotated him with the ones is a clear indication that we think he can compete, but we're not going to anoint him yet," Marc Trestman said. "You've got to be very careful with young players, they get in shorts and they're doing well and then you put on the pads and you've got to see how they are in pads. And then you have to see what happens when the Eagles come in to town and when the Jaguars come in to town and see how they do there. There's no reason to think that he can't put himself in position to compete for one of those jobs, but it's way, way too early."
Conte had his worst season as a pro in 2013 but, because he's an experienced starter who knows the system, he'll get every opportunity in training camp, assuming he's healthy, to keep his job. Vereen may be the long-term answer but it's doubtful the Bears will feel comfortable heading into the first half of the 2014 season, which is brutal, with a rookie calling the shots on defense.
Then again, Vereen may prove worthy of that role and may provide a boost to Chicago's defense. Yet if he's being trotted out there in Week 1 because he's the best option of a mediocre bunch, things could get ugly.
For that reason, Mundy said the focus will be on fundamentals and limiting mistakes.
"We've just got to make plays," said Mundy. "For so long the focus has been on, the staple of this defense is creating turnovers. That's something that we're focused on day in and day out, making plays and creating turnovers. But also as a safety, you need to get guys on the ground. Sometimes it's not always pretty but we need to make sure we get guys on the ground and give our defense another chance to line up and play football."
Chicago's safety competition will play out well into training camp. If the Bears are going to improve defensively this year, the winner of that battle will emerge a viable quarterback of the secondary.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.