Defensive Issue: Safety in Numbers?

No matter what happens with the Chicago Bears in '09, it's going to be a different story at safety. Mike Brown is now a Chief, and it will be up to the likes of Craig Steltz and Corey Graham to fill his shoes. In Part V of a five-part series, we take a closer look at both the free and strong safety positions.

The Skinny
Even though the Monsters of the Midway are quite used to going without Mike Brown, especially since he's had never-ending injury problems since 2004, his presence can't be replicated or duplicated.

However, the Bears simply had to cut the cord with their one-time Pro Bowler and locker-room leader, despite the fact that he did suit up for 15 of 16 games this past season – remember there were a few contests he was unable to finish because of various bumps and bruises. So no matter how the depth chart ultimately shakes out after training camp and the exhibition schedule, it's going to be hard to comprehend No. 30 no longer a part of the equation anymore. If there is one positive to take away from this difficult divorce, it's that Kevin Payne can head back to his natural home at strong safety after being forced to play free safety the second half of 2008.

Second-year pro Craig Steltz got the majority of the first-team reps throughout OTAs, although third-year man Corey Graham is making the move from cornerback and has been one of the coaching staff's favorites lately.

Reasons to be Optimistic
Brown was not the game changer last year that Bears fans had come to know and love, so getting him out of there for good – plus seeing him in a Kansas City uniform – helps turn the page.

Since Brown's injury history included all kinds of lower-leg problems, from shredded knees to torn foot ligaments and nearly everything in between, he lost a step or two in coverage and was overmatched one-on-one with capable receivers. While Steltz isn't necessarily a thoroughbred of an athlete, he had that classic "nose for the football" in college and might be able to translate that same skill to the big-boy game on Sunday. Should Graham walk away with the starting job when it's all said and done, he'll bring corner cover skills to the table in addition to a free safety-ready frame at 6-0 and 195 pounds or so.


Steltz has big shoes to fill in 2009 at free safety.
Warren Wimmer Photography

Payne tackles like a heat-seeking missile sometimes, which isn't necessarily a good thing as a free safety because it leads to a lot of misses, so he can make more stops at strong safety.

Causes for Concern
Brown was a coach-on-the-field type that always knew what all 11 defenders were supposed to do on any given snap, which may not be the case anymore – the team is going to need a new defensive captain alongside Brian Urlacher, too.

While the secondary may get an upgrade in terms of health and athleticism, there is no way to hide it: Brown is nothing short of irreplaceable both on and off the field. The simple fact that Steltz and Graham are taking over for one of the legendary warriors in franchise history only makes that task more daunting, as opposed to replacing Tony Parrish or Chris Harris. Josh Bullocks was signed in the offseason and had the makings of a top free safety coming out of Nebraska in 2005, but all of a sudden he's getting most of his repititions behind Payne at strong safety.

Many scouts think Steltz can be a better strong safety than free safety, so it's telling – and potentially dangerous – that he's been slated to play free safety while the more athletic Bullocks tries to compete at strong safety.

CONCLUSION
If wide receiver is the biggest question mark on offense for the Midway Monsters come '09, then safety gets the same dubious honor on defense. Injuries and ineffectiveness have plagued Chicago at both safety positions on an annual basis during head coach Lovie Smith's regime, yet he always remained loyal to Brown despite the yearly trips to injured reserve. A new era will begin this season, but it's premature to say just yet if that's a positive or a negative.

Much like the cornerbacks, the safeties will benefit greatly if new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli can help ramp up the pressure in the trenches.


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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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