As the injuries on the defensive line and at linebacker piled up through 2013, the assault on the secondary reached demoralizing and devastating levels, falling heaviest on safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright. The latter is gone, to Tampa Bay, and the former will be in a tense position battle when he returns from offseason shoulder surgery.
When safeties become de facto linebackers because of issues in front of them, opponents tilt toward running the ball, which Bears rivals did with historic success. The final toll was 161.4 rushing yards allowed per game; the next-worst was Atlanta at 135.8, the widest gap between Nos. 32 and 31 since Indianapolis was 28 yards than No. 31 St. Louis.
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The issues in the secondary, however, went far beyond run support, amply demonstrated by the breakdown in Game 16 that allowed Randall Cobb to exploit a mistake by Conte and take a touchdown pass that gave Green Bay the NFC North over the Bears.
It was far from the only catastrophe befalling the back end of the defense, just the last, worst-timed and most emblematic.
The offseason focus was on reupholstering the defense, in generally equal measures for the line and the secondary. The season-ending arm injury to Charles Tillman cast his situation in some doubt, but the organization gambled on the savvy veteran having at least one more good year in a career marked by durability: 16 games started from every year from 2010-2012, 15 from 2007-2009, and no fewer than 14 games played in nine of the his 10 years prior to 2013.
The organization secured veteran Tim Jennings with a four-year deal as the season ended. The cornerback area was further addressed when the Bears used the 14th-overall pick on Kyle Fuller out of Virginia Tech, with Fuller already established on the No. 1 nickel unit and Jennings ticketed for the role of nickel back in that personnel package.
Kelvin Hayden was re-signed after missing last season with a torn hamstring suffered in training camp. Isaiah Frey handled the nickel-corner job in his place, started several games when the Bears opened in nickel, but both will be pushed for roster spots.
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But the biggest makeover was at safety, with the addition of former Steeler/Giant Ryan Mundy and slotting him in as Wright’s successor with a four-year contract. M.D. Jennings was brought in from Green Bay and is in the mix with veteran Craig Steltz and signee Danny McCray.
Five-time Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson was a late-offseason signing.
“The more guys you add to the mix, the more competition there’s gonna be,” said coordinator Mel Tucker. “So we’re looking forward to getting Chris back out there… . We’ll roll those guys through and it’ll be a fluid situation all the way through training camp.”
Training camp will answer…
…whether Fuller is NFL-ready. His speed and toughness were traits behind his selection but everybody has speed and is tough at the NFL level. What Fuller has shown so far is that he has been up to the levels needed; from here… ?
“Kyle is a guy who doesn't back down from a challenge,” Tucker said. “He's always going to look to make plays, he's around the ball quite a bit and he looks like he belongs out there.”
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…how well the Bears draft defensive backs. Third-round picks of Conte, Wright and Brandon Hardin have not achieved the impact play consistency normally needed from that level of pick. This year the Bears invested the No. 1 in Fuller and a No. 4 in Brock Vereen, and both are projected to be significant contributors right from day one.
“I know Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are two Pro Bowl corners,” said Fuller, “so I’m defiantly looking forward to coming in and learning from those guys. “
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…how much Tillman and Wilson have left. Both are multiple Pro Bowl selections but are on one-year deals for a reason and both are coming off season-ending injuries. Tillman is arguably the greatest cornerback in franchise history, but the NFL is about present-tense.
Wilson was once among the strongest hitters in the NFL but is 34 and coming off a year lost with a torn Achilles at the end of last preseason as a member of the New England Patriots.
If he cannot wrest the starting job away from Mundy, Wilson’s role is suspect, given his age and reality that special teams are not where his value has been.