Secondary Suddenly a Primary Concern

Bourbonnais - For a second straight year, Jerry Azumah left Bourbonnais to see a specialist and will need a medical procedure. This time around, a mysterious sore hip will require arthroscopic surgery and leaves the Bears paper thin at cornerback.

"We're concerned. Azumah's a Pro Bowl player, so we need him out there as quick as we can," said head coach Lovie Smith.

Azumah sat out five of the last six practices in an attempt to recover with rest, but when the condition didn't improve the team decided to send him to Denver for a second opinion. Smith has always been vague about injuries and this time around was no different.

"I'd like to tell you more about the injury right now, I just know he has soreness in his hip and it wasn't getting better, so we sent him out with that," Smith said.

In 2004, Azumah missed the entire preseason and four regular season games with a herniated disk in his neck that required surgery. He still finished second on the team with four interceptions. In a contract year, he's looking for another solid campaign, but he will likely miss at least a month following the procedure.

Charles Tillman also sat out on Tuesday because a quad injury. He expects to be back at practice on Wednesday, but without either of their starting cornerbacks the Bears used Nathan Vasher and Rashied Davis on the first team defense. Davis has been with the team less than two months and has never played a down in an NFL game.

Rex Grossman seemed to target whatever receiver Davis was covering, beating the cornerback's coverage on more than one occasion.

"I want them to come after me," Davis said. "I want to prove that I can make the plays against the ones or the twos."

Todd McMillon worked on the nickel package, but is more known for his special teams play rather than being a cover corner. The six-year veteran has always had to compete for a spot on the roster, which has prepared him for handling the critique of his game.

"It doesn't bother me. It's my job and it's my profession and being in this profession, you're going to get criticized," McMillon said. "People are either going to like you or they're not going to like you. I can't worry about what other people think about me."

Jerrell Pippens, who was moved from safety to cornerback last week, is getting an opportunity on the second team defense. He came up with an interception of QB Chad Hutchinson on Tuesday. Alfonso Marshall has yet to practice as he continues to rehab from a knee injury.

"We're pleased with what some of our young corners have been able to do," Smith said. "Jerrell Pippens and Rashied Davis both are making progress and of course we've talked about Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher. We know what they can do, but we need some of our younger players to step up at that position."

The Bears cut R.W. McQuarters in May because they didn't want to pay his $3.05 million base salary. He signed with Detroit and would have given the Bears an insurance policy in case of injury or if Azumah walked after a contract year.

Now the Bears will have to rely on unproven players to improve quickly or start getting healthy. If Azumah is out for any length of time that leaves Tillman and Vasher as the starters and the nickel role is up for grabs.

"I'm only concerned if we lose one of our three,'' GM Jerry Angelo said on last Wednesday. "Then that's a concern, we have enough numbers and enough quality with the next tier of corners that we should have a pretty good four and five."

Angelo's scenario has come true just over a week into camp. The move to release McQuarters was questioned at the time and rings true as the team is without Azumah for the bulk of the preseason and maybe more.


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