2009 Position by Position Review: S

After a disappointing 7-9 record in 2009, it's time to take a look back at the Chicago Bears and discover what went right and what went ridiculously wrong. Friday, we strip down both safety spots.

2009 Review
The Bears simply had to get rid of Mike Brown even though he was the heart and soul of the Chicago defense for years, which is why it was so hard to watch him play all 16 games for the Chiefs and record 103 tackles, two sacks and three interceptions.

Saying "sayonara" to Brown made sense because the former Pro Bowler had missed 44 of 80 regular season contests from 2004-08 with various lower-leg injuries, but the Midway Monsters deserve to be criticized for not having an exit strategy in place – granted, replacing a borderline irreplaceable presence like Brown isn't an easy task. Instead, fans were subjected to a never-ending game of musical chairs at both the strong and free safety positions, with Danieal Manning asked to alternate between free safety and nickel back based on the offense's personnel for a while. Without a pure free safety capable of taking away the deep middle with eight defenders in the box, strong safety-types like Kevin Payne, Craig Steltz and rookie Al Afalava were exposed when away from the line of scrimmage.

Once coach Lovie Smith announced right before training camp that Steltz had been removed as the starter at free safety in favor of Manning, this after Steltz spent all of the offseason atop the depth chart, red flags shot up everywhere.

Inside the Numbers
Chicago finished a better-than-average 13th in the NFL defending the pass this year, surrendering 211.4 yards per game through the air, but digging deeper through the stat sheet exposes some real flaws. The Bears gave up 29 touchdown passes (tied for 28th), allowed a completion percentage of 64.2 (tied for 27th) and watched helplessly as enemy quarterbacks put together a passer rating of 92.3 (26th).

S Kevin Payne
AP Images: Charles Rex Arbogast

Thumbs Up
While he has no business playing free safety, just like the scouting report said when he was drafted in the sixth round out of Oregon State, Afalava has a future as a strong safety and understood the scheme as well as any rookie has in recent years. Steltz and forgotten free agent addition Josh Bullocks started the last two weeks when everyone else was hurt, and they played well enough to get some credit for Chicago closing out the schedule with two victories.

Thumbs Down
Completely lost when lining up at free safety, Payne has really regressed after showing some flashes as a young player and is one of the worst tacklers on the team technique-wise. Manning needs to be removed from the equation at free safety altogether, but he still has some value as a nickel back and kick returner because of his raw athleticism.

2010 Preview
Since general manager Jerry Angelo has said repeatedly that quality safeties can be found on Day 2 of the draft, he would be wise to find one this April.

If both Afalava and Payne stick at strong safety and don't get jerked around anymore, perhaps one of them will emerge and develop into a Chris Harris-type player – Angelo wouldn't mind having him back right about now. As far as free safety is concerned, there isn't anyone on the roster capable of getting the job done because it's such a critical role in the Cover 2. From the group consisting of Afalava, Payne, Steltz and Bullocks, not one of them has the coverage skills to play the position, and even though Manning does, he makes too many mental mistakes to be trusted as the last line of defense in today's pass-happy NFL.

If the coaching staff still refuses to give Charles Tillman a look at free safety, Angelo will be in a tough spot because the top six free agents on the market are all restricted – he doesn't have the draft picks required to go get an Oshiomogho Atogwe or an Antoine Bethea.

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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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