Bears Offseason Review: Defense

Everyone's talking offense for the Chicago Bears on the heels of the Jay Cutler acquisition, but this club is not headed back to the playoffs unless the D returns to its once dominant self. Improvements have been made, but are they enough? With OTAs open to the media Wednesday, let's investigate.

Defensive Tackle

Head coach Lovie Smith's version of the Cover 2 is primarily driven by the three-technique tackle position, where Tommie Harris hasn't lived up to his usual Pro-Bowl standard and keeps having to battle nagging injuries.

There is no reason to suggest Harris is anything but 100 percent healthy coming into 2009 – that is unless the rumors are true and he has indeed done some permanent damage to his lower body at the young age of 26. Fortunately for the Bears, they have depth behind him with second-year pro Marcus Harrison flashing a little potential as a rookie and draft pick Jarron Gilbert falling to them in Round 3. But the story here begins and ends with Harris, who simply must be the penetrating demon he was earlier in his career because he makes the rest of the D-line's job easier when he's a force to be reckoned with on the inside.

It will be interesting to see if Harrison gets some time at nose tackle in order for both he and Gilbert to receive additional snaps, as Dusty Dvoracek has ended all three of his seasons on injured reserve and Anthony Adams is only effective against the run.

Defensive End

Blame a battered secondary all you want for ranking 30th against the pass last year, but enemy quarterbacks simply had too much time to throw because of an inadequate pass rush up front.


DE Mark Anderson
M. Spencer Green/AP Images

Adewale Ogunleye, Mark Anderson, and Israel Idonije – he's been moved back to end from tackle – are entering the final year of their contracts, so all of them have the incentive they need to be much more productive than they were a year ago. And while the durable Alex Brown was the only member of the rotation that played consistently well in 2008, he's never done better than seven sacks in a season and doesn't exactly strike fear into opposing left tackles with his pass-rushing ability. Gilbert also has the flexibility to switch from tackle to end every now and then, so look for him to challenge for playing time if Anderson doesn't resemble the terror off the edge he was throughout his rookie campaign.

There are a lot of bodies to throw out there, which should help keep all of them fresh for four quarters, but this is going to have to be a group effort because nobody is capable of dominating a game by himself.

Linebacker

Former Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher has now gone two straight years without an invitation to Hawaii, although Lance Briggs is coming off four consecutive Pro Bowls and appears to be in the prime of his career.

The question for this unit, however, is at the strong-side position, as the coaching staff used an injury to veteran Hunter Hillenmeyer as an excuse to bench him in favor of youngster Nick Roach this past season. Neither of them performed particularly well in the starting lineup, with Hillenmeyer not quick enough to be a playmaker and Roach not sturdy enough to hold the point of attack. If Urlacher doesn't enjoy a Ray Lewis-style renaissance in the middle and isn't the sideline-to-sideline tackling machine Bears fans have come to know and love over the years, then the defense must get better play on the strong side to help compensate for No. 54's drop-off in performance.

Fifth-rounder Marcus Freeman will initially back up Briggs at weak-side linebacker, but he has a lot of talent and could earn a look on the other side if this D needs a shot in the arm – special teamer Jamar Williams has a chance to compete with Hillenmeyer and Roach in training camp, too.

Cornerback

While Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher formed one of the top corner combos in the NFC during the division-title runs of 2005-06, Tillman battled two bad shoulders this past year and Vasher has all but disappeared the last two seasons.


CB Nathan Vasher
Jeff Roberson/AP Images

Tillman has played through a laundry list of injuries throughout his career and earned his reputation as a warrior on the field, but Vasher missed most of 2007 with a groin problem and then half of '08 with hand and thumb concerns – "The Interceptor" has picked off a grand total of two passes since signing a $28 million extension two summers ago. There was some chatter this offseason about moving Tillman to free safety since Mike Brown is no longer in a Bears uniform, although Smith shot that down quickly since the 6-1, 196-pounder is still his best corner on the roster. Perhaps Corey Graham, who has played reasonably well when asked to start, will get a look at safety since that could help Chicago get its best defenders in the huddle at the same time.

Another player to pay close attention to is fourth-round selection D.J. Moore, as the former Vanderbilt Commodore has the kind of ball skills this group has lacked since Vasher's star began to fade.

Safety

No matter what happens with the Monsters of the Midway in 2009, the defense isn't going to be the same with Brown – always a fan favorite at Soldier Field – no longer a part of the secondary.

But instead of signing a big-name free agent like Darren Sharper or drafting an elite prospect like Louis Delmas, general manager Jerry Angelo is simply throwing bodies at the wall and hoping at least two of them will stick for a season or two. Third-year pro Kevin Payne should be better since he can move back to his natural position at strong safety, although he needs to work on his tackling technique and stop bouncing off ball carriers so routinely. Bargain-basement free agent Josh Bullocks has a lot of talent but didn't get to put it on display playing behind some terrible corners in New Orleans, even though it now looks like last year's fourth-rounder, Craig Steltz, will get the first crack at free safety.

While rookie Al Afalava turned some heads at rookie minicamp, don't be surprised if converted corner Zack Bowman forces himself onto the field because of his coverage skills and nose for the football.


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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.


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