Quite simply, the Monsters of the Midway aren't going to be all they can be on defense this season unless Tommie Harris gets back to Pro Bowl form at the three-technique tackle position.
Head coach Lovie Smith's version of the Cover-2 D begins and ends with the three technique, despite the fact that Brian Urlacher won Defensive Player of the Year in 2005 as a middle linebacker and Mike Brown was a captain at safety for years. Should Harris use his speed and quickness to consistently penetrate the backfield and blow up plays before they have a chance to get started, suddenly the ends face one-on-one blocking, the linebackers are free to roam from sideline to sideline, and the secondary doesn't have to hold its coverage nearly as long. Harris made three consecutive Pro Bowls before disappearing at times this past season, although he did play fairly well in November and December – it takes more than simple statistics to fully understand the impact he has on the final score.
Reasons to be Optimistic
While Harris took it easy throughout the offseason program and didn't take any reps in either 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 drills, he's not coming off any major surgical procedures and has no reason not to be healthy coming into 2009.
It's a good sign that Adams was getting most of the first-team reps during OTAs since he brings a lot of energy to the huddle, is stout against the run, and doesn't have that permanent position set aside for him on injured reserve – that's Dvoracek's problem. Second-year pro Marcus Harrison showed flashes as a rookie and should be a solid backup to Harris, plus third-round draft choice Jarron Gilbert can pick up the slack on passing downs. And if all else fails, the versatile Israel Idonije flip-flops back and forth between end and tackle depending on where he's needed any given Sunday.
Adams is the smart pick to start at nose tackle.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Harris seemed to have a noticeable chip on his shoulder when talking to the media in the offseason, especially after a pair of radio hosts questioned whether or not the Bears should pay him a bonus due next year, so the former Oklahoma Sooner has more than enough motivation to climb his way back to the top of the heap.
Causes for Concern
There are whispers around the league that the 26-year-old Harris is already playing on 36-year-old knees, meaning he'll never resemble the player that was on the short list of Defensive Player of the Year candidates before getting injured down the stretch in 2006.
If Harris is no longer a dominating force in the trenches and unable to so much as dent the stat sheet, which happened a few times last year, then that makes the rest of the defenders' jobs much more difficult. The mere fact that general manager Jerry Angelo selected both Harrison and Gilbert in the third round of the last two NFL Drafts is a sure sign he's putting a contingency plan in place, despite committing $40 million to Harris this past summer – a lot of his money is on paper, of course. Injuries to this unit have been a yearly hurdle to jump in Smith's tenure, so this is Dvoracek's final opportunity to prove he can stay on the field for a full 16-game schedule.
Idonije signed a two-year extension May 29 and was supposed to provide depth at end after losing 30 pounds since last year, but he spent most of OTAs stuck at tackle while Harris watched from the sideline.
It all comes down to Harris, that's all there is to it. If he's terrorizing enemy backfields on every snap, the Bears can be an elite defensive team. However, if he can't be an effective three-down player, it's reasonable to assume that the window has already closed on what looked to be a surefire Hall of Fame career. Fortunately for Chicago, Harris knows this and understands that all the criticism he's been getting lately will wash away should he play well. Talk is just talk.
And if Harris does play well, maybe we're looking at a top-10 defense again after doing no better than 21st since making that run to Super Bowl XLI.
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.