Training Camp Preview: Defense

In Part II of a three-part series, JC takes a look at the Chicago Bears on the defensive side of the ball. With training camp finally set to open at the end of this week, here are five crucial questions that need to be answered if the Midway Monsters are going to make it back to the postseason in 2009.

1. Is Harris still the difference maker he used to be in the middle?
It's been said time and time again at Halas Hall during the Lovie Smith regime: the three-technique tackle position is the most important on the field if Chicago's version of the Cover 2 is going to be effective. Back when Tommie Harris was 100 percent healthy up front for the better part of 2005-06, he was a one-man wrecking crew and blew up many plays before they had a chance to get started – No. 91 was voted to the Pro Bowl following each of those seasons as a result. But after battling all kinds of knee and hamstring issues ever since, Harris was left off the Pro Bowl roster this past year for the first time since he was a rookie and continued to see very little practice time throughout minicamp and OTAs.

The organization swears up and down that he is perfectly fine and they're just being extra cautious with their $40 million man, but Harris has developed a noticeable chip on his shoulder and wants to prove once again he's the best in the business.


Anderson and Brown need more sacks in 2009.
AP Images: Nam Y. Huh

2. Who is going to step up his game and sack the enemy quarterback?
While you can blame the secondary all you want for this defense being way too susceptible to the pass the last two seasons, not even Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson could have covered NFL wide receivers five or six seconds at a time. Not only did starters Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye fail to put together a consistent pass rush in 2008, but sack specialist Mark Anderson hasn't done a thing since being the runner-up for Defensive Rookie of the Year back in '06. This scheme doesn't do a lot of all-out blitzing, preferring to send one extra rusher from time to time, so the ends have got to give the cover guys more of a chance and force quick decisions from the QB.

Promising rookies Jarron Gilbert and Henry Melton most likely won't be a big part of the rotation just yet, so look for the invaluable Israel Idonije to push Anderson for the No. 3 role off the bench.

3. Can Briggs-Urlacher-Tinoisamoa be Marshall-Singletary-Wilson?
Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher have been two of the top linebackers in football for quite some time – Briggs is currently in his prime, Urlacher is doing his best to get there again – but have been held back to some degree because of a weak link at the strong-side position. While it may be unfair to call Hunter Hillenmeyer a weak link, especially since he's technique-sound and assignment-perfect, the fact remains that he's never been much of a playmaker. Now with Pisa Tinoisamoa added to the mix, the Bears might have the best triumvirate of 4-3 'backers in the league.

If Tinoisamoa doesn't mind playing third fiddle behind Briggs and Urlacher but still accumulates close to 100 tackles, this unit could be special.


Vasher and Tillman have to be healthy together.
Getty Images: Jonathan Daniel

4. What happens if Tillman or Vasher gets banged up yet again?
Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher used to be one of the more revered cornerback combinations in the NFC, but injuries and ineffectiveness – one has affected Tillman, both have slowed Vasher – have been a problem at the position for a while now. No question, Trumaine McBride played admirably as a rookie in 2007 and Corey Graham appears to have a bright future based on his performance in '08, but this secondary simply isn't the same when one of the veterans is in street clothes. With McBride falling out of favor and Graham now competing at free safety, talented-but-green Zack Bowman is first in line off the bench if one of the starters goes down again.

Switching Graham back and forth from corner to safety based on need would be unwise, as all it did was make poor Danieal Manning's head spin on game day.

5. Will the loss of Brown come back to bite the Bears at safety?
Even though the Monsters of the Midway are used to playing without Mike Brown these days, with the former defensive captain missing as many games as he played the second half of his Chicago career, his presence both on the field and in the locker room can't be replaced. Would it have been more painful for Bears fans to see Brown back in the Windy City for 2009 only to come up with yet another lower-leg injury, or watching helplessly as he reverts back to Pro Bowl level wearing a Chiefs uniform? We'll find out soon enough, but for now Kevin Payne and Craig Steltz have some legendary shoes to fill.

While Payne should be a better player moving permanently to strong safety, Steltz has Graham nipping at his heels at free safety and may not be able to hold off his more-athletic teammate for long.


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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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