John Crist: Bears coach Lovie Smith is moving Danieal Manning from free safety to strong safety. That tells me they have no confidence in him as the single-high safety when they go eight men in the box. Does that sound like a legitimate reason for taking a player like Manning, who might be the best pure athlete on the team, and moving him from free safety to strong safety?
Matt Bowen: Yeah, I think so, and I think the way the Bears play defense – I played in this scheme under Lovie in St. Louis and under Perry Fewell in Buffalo, so I know it very well. The free safety is key to this defense because, one, when you play a single-high safety, there has to be some accountability back there. You have to make the correct reads, you have to take the correct angles to the football and you can't give up a big play. The job of Charles Tillman and Zack Bowman is going to be to funnel everyone to that single-safety when Lovie or Rod Marinelli calls Cover 1.
And putting him down at strong safety in the box, I agree with you that he is the best athlete in the entire secondary, Danieal Manning is. But from what I've heard, he doesn't pick up the playbook very well, and that might be a reason for moving him down there just to cover themselves. But you've got to have someone in the middle of the field in this defense that's very accountable, very technique-sound, doesn't take chances that can get you beat.
JC: So now not only is Manning playing out of position, but with Chris Harris forced to play free safety, he's out of position, too. Harris made a name for himself in Carolina by being a tough in-the-box player and forcing a bunch of fumbles. I don't think he's equipped to be a single-high safety, either.
MB: Yeah, I also don't think Harris has enough speed to play the single-high. It's not that he's a slow player. I mean, he's playing in the NFL. But his best thing he can do for Chicago is to get in that box and play a thing called Under 10. It's like a weak-side Cover 1, and your job as the strong safety is to hit that A gap hard and make a tackle. Your job in playing Cover 1 is any run comes to you, it's to take on blocks and spill it to the linebackers. It's a grind down there. In that defense, it's a tough job, but it takes a tougher player and a guy that's willing to mix it up a little bit.
And I think that, ultimately, I think they want Major Wright in the middle of the field. Obviously, it hurts the team that he's injured. I know it's not a big injury. But if you're a rookie, you've got to be on the field. You can't be missing practice, and I think that Major Wright is a guy that they can envision putting in the middle of the field. He's got the speed, he's got the range. Yeah, he's a rookie, but if you have that speed and range back there and you can trust him a little bit, then put Harris at strong, now you're looking OK. Because you'll agree with me, too: If they don't have safety play this year, forget about it.
JC: I really think the Bears have to hit a home run with Wright and start him right away at free safety, move Harris down into the box at strong safety and then let Manning play nickel back again. The Bears keep trying to tell me there's no big difference between free safety and strong safety in their scheme. I couldn't disagree more. Sounds like you disagree, too.
MB: In Cover 2, there's not. You both play half the field. But you don't play Cover 2 the entire game. We saw last year, they play a lot of Cover 1, a lot of Cover 2, they'll zone blitz a lot. There's a big difference. To play free safety is a completely different thing from a scheme perspective. You can't make mistakes back there. You've got to be able to tackle in the open field. And a lot of times, you're by yourself. And a lot of times it comes down to you and the ball carrier – get him on the ground and go to the next play, or give up a touchdown.
But when it comes to the deep ball, you have to be able to get to the middle of the field to the outside of the numbers. It's a long ways to go. It's a long ways. It's a run, and you have to be able to get there, and when you get there, you've got to be able to make a play on the ball. You're not just there to make a tackle. You have to be able to knock the pass down or make an interception.
And that's the biggest thing we've seen with Lovie's teams the last couple years. Last year, the interceptions are down. If you're going to play this defense, you have to force turnovers. Because you're not going to be a defense like Baltimore or like Pittsburgh or like the Jets, where you're going to completely shut people down. You're going to bend a little. But on the flip side of it, you cause so many turnovers that it makes up for that and you can still play this scheme.
So I agree with you: There is a big difference. If you're talking about Cover 2, yeah, then they're interchangeable. You both can play half the field. It doesn't matter what side you're on. But when you send a guy down to the box – look at a Tampa 2 team. Look at Bob Sanders when he's healthy. There's a big difference when he's down in the box compared to the middle of the field.
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John Crist is the Publisher of BearReport.com. Matt Bowen writes a column for the National Football Post called The Players Page.
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