Talk about wholesale changes.
In addition, the front seven is going through a major overhaul, transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4 under defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.
With Chicago’s defense undergoing so much change, experience and leadership will be crucial this season. With more than half the defensive players playing new positions and a potentially brand new secondary, someone must serve as the glue, the bonding agent that keeps this unit from falling apart.
From what I’ve seen this off-season, the rock around which this defense will rotate is safety Antrel Rolle.
At 32, many have questioned how much gas Rolle has left in the tank. Yet consider this: Rolle, a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro, has had 87 or more tackles five seasons in a row, he’s forced a fumble in each year since 2009, and has 21 pass breakups and nine interceptions the last two seasons combined, which is exceptional for a safety over 30.
To this point, he’s shown no signs of slowing down.
Rolle, a former cornerback selected eighth overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2005, is savvy and intelligent in coverage. His presence provides an immediate lift for the pass defense.
Yet for Rolle, his value goes beyond his ability in center field, as he’s being asked by Fangio to quarterback the secondary and the defense as a whole.
“When you’re playing safety, you have to know the entire defense,” Rolle said. “You have to be the brains of the operation. Understand fronts, understand linebackers, be able to communicate with your corners as well as the other positions. Get your assignments. You have a lot of duties playing the safety position.”
Therein lies a crucial but consistently understated trait for a free safety: the ability to line up the defense and keep everyone on the same page. More than any other sport, football relies on every player working in tandem, something in which Chicago’s secondary has failed miserably the past two years.
At its dysfunctional peak, a lack of communication in the secondary cost the Bears a victory in the 2013 season finale against the Green Bay Packers, as well as a trip to the playoffs.
With Rolle, who has been the most-vocal defender on the field during practice this off-season, those lapses in focus should be a thing of the past.
“Communication is always good to start,” said Rolle. “We’ve got phenomenal talent. The talent level is through the roof. It’s going to be about how we jell together as a team.”
Under the former regime, the defense never came close to jelling and was an embarrassment at nearly every level. With Rolle, the widespread confusion will end, which should cut down drastically on the types of mental mistakes that have plagued this defense the past two years.
Rolle is in the twilight of his career and obviously isn’t the same player he was 10 years ago. Yet having played in all but one contest since 2006, with 148 games under his belt, Rolle can serve as the veteran anchor of the secondary, one who can keep everyone’s head on straight and not allow the train to veer of the track.
That alone should pay hefty dividends in 2015, and possibly beyond.
“You always want to be a playmaker. That’s always my primary goal,” Rolle said. “It’s what you do between the white lines that really matters. So just being a veteran leader and being a guy that the younger guys can look up to. And I just want to be an all-around force. That’s how I like to play the game.”
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.