On the Same Page Defensively

As much change as the offense has gone through this off-season, the complete opposite holds true for a defense that returns all 11 starters.

The only significant change to the Bears' defense is the departure of overpaid R.W. McQuarters, a frequent starter at cornerback who was better suited as the nickel.

The absence of McQuarters, who was also a better-than-average punt returner, bumps Nathan Vasher up the ladder, and the Bears are confident he will respond to the challenge of full-time corner behind starters Charles Tillman and Jerry Azumah. As a rookie in 2004, Vasher led the team with five interceptions, and he has always demonstrated an uncanny knack for getting interceptions.

The problem with cutting loose McQuarters and his $3.2 million base salary is that the Bears could find themselves thin on the corner if any of the top three is injured. For now, there is no proven depth behind them. The top veteran backup is Todd McMillon, whose primary value is as a special-teams players.

Rashied Davis, an Arena League project, looked promising in mini-camps and spring practices. But, like Azumah and Vasher, he is just 5-feet-10, and even though Randy Moss is no longer in the NFC North that lack of size could be a concern.

Alfonso Marshall has size on his side at six-foot, but midway through his rookie campaign he ruptured his right ACL. The seventh round pick has been unable to practice with the team and will likely miss part of training camp as he continues to rehab.

Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera also hopes for a change in the health of his group. Last season, key elements like linebacker Brian Urlacher, defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, safety Mike Brown, Tillman and Azumah all missed significant chunks of playing time because of injuries. All are expected to be 100 percent recovered by the time training camp begins on July 23.

A minor change involves the flip-flop of Brown and Mike Green at the safety positions. Brown moves from free to strong to better utilize his in-the-box hitting skills, while Green is expected to be more effective focusing on coverage.

Hunter Hillenmeyer spent most of the 2004 season filling in at middle linebacker for Urlacher while he limped through three injuries. Hillenmeyer played well enough to earn a starting spot on the strong side, but that position is still somewhat unsettled heading into training camp. Marcus Reese and Joe Odom have also started on the strong side in the past.

The defensive line should be unchanged, with Ogunleye at left end and Alex Brown on the right. Michael Haynes hasn't lived up to his first-round draft status in 2003, but he is a solid backup at both end spots. Tackle Tommie Harris impressed as a rookie, showing athleticism and disruptive tendencies, and he has the talent to take a big step up this season. Ian Scott is more the stay-at-home nose tackle type and a good complement to Harris.

The Bears have several undersized pass-rush types who could provide some extra firepower in nickel and dime situations, but none of them made much of an impact last season.


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