Bears

First Look: 2011 Chicago Bears defense

348867.jpg

First Look: 2011 Chicago Bears defense

Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2011
1:14 p.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

Third in a series

What the Bears got from Jay Cutler, Mike Martz and the 2010 offense was less than bargained for, literally. But on defense, the return on investment was arguably more than expected.

Only three teams allowed fewer points than the Bears, and two (Pittsburgh, Green Bay) of those (Baltimore No. 3) are in the Super Bowl. The only team that allowed fewer rushing yards per game (Pittsburgh) is also in the Super Bowl.

Only Green Bay and Pittsburgh held opposing quarterbacks to a lower combined passer rating than the Bears (74.4). Only New Orleans (13) allowed fewer than the Bears 14 passing touchdowns and the Bears allowed more than one passing TD in just two games this season.

The Bears tied with Pittsburgh at No. 3 in takeaways with 35.

But as good as the 2010 Bears defense was, with members rating it at times as better than the unit that got the Bears to the 2006 Super Bowl, the plan is to upgrade it.

Priority area: Always up front

The Angelo personnel regime has invested draft picks in both offensive and defensive lines. Two No. 1s were spent on tackles (Marc Colombo 02, Chris Williams 08) and two No. 1s were invested on defensive linemen (Michael Haynes 03, Tommie Harris 04).

But the focus on defense sharpens in the middle and late rounds. In nine drafts Angelo has picked offensive linemen in rounds 2-5 just twice (Terrence Metcalf 02, Josh Beekman 07). The Bears have used sixth- and seventh-round picks on offensive linemen, where a hit is found money; they aim considerably higher on the other side of the ball.

READ: First Look - 2011 Bears offense

Angelo has picked 12 defensive linemen in those rounds, plus traded a third-round selection for defensive end Adewale Ogunleye.

And the biggest free-agency signing in franchise history was Julius Peppers a defensive end, and at a time when end was not necessarily a critical need, given the presences of Ogunleye, Mark Anderson, Alex Brown and Israel Idonije.

None of those were close to the level of Peppers but the pattern of keeping a strength strong was holding true. Safety was arguably a more critical need but was not a priority or value position in the Bears structure, and that spot was addressed with the first 10 pick going for Major Wright rather than pursue the likes of Antrel Rolle at stratospheric prices.

End game

The play of Peppers, sufficient to place him fourth in voting for defensive player of the year, was all the Bears had envisioned. If the sack total (8) was less than ideal, the overall impact was felt both in quantity (the defense with Peppers addition and Brian Urlachers return from injury became one of the NFLs best) and quality (Peppers was immediately elected with Urlacher as co-captains of the defense).

If anything, coaches might be questioned on why Mark Anderson was given so much playing time over first Alex Brown, then Idonije, when both were clearly the better all-around players.

Corey Wootton needed time to develop an NFL game but his development showed as the season progressed. And just as Gary Fencik will go down as the last person to catch a Joe Namath pass, Wootton will be remembered in NFL history as the last player to sack Brett Favre. But if that was the finish of Favres career, Woottons arrow is pointing decidedly in the opposite direction.

The Bears signed Nick Reed to a futures contract. Reed was a 2009 seventh-round pick by Seattle and played 16 games that season for the Seahawks when personnel director Tim Ruskell was in charge there.

Tackle troubles

Nose tackle Anthony Adams is a priority re-signing and the expectation is that they will fortify defense perhaps ahead even of offense; keeping a strength strong is a must.

If tackle play after Adams was not exceptional last season, it had significant positives. Henry Melton survived roster competition with Jarron Gilbert in training camp to become one of the bright spots as a pass rusher and was part of rotations both at tackle and end.

Matt Toeaina took Tommie Harris job early in the year and played his way into a multi-year contract extension. He saw Harris take the job back late in the season but did post his first 2 career sacks and fumble recovery and is set in the interior rotation. The Bears have hopes for former Kansas City ChiefCarolina Panther Tank Tyler, a third-round pick who started 19 games for Kansas City and signed to a futures contract.

READ: Coaching, draft & more

Harris return is very unlikely give his roster bonus, workout bonus and salary hits facing the Bears. He delivered some impact plays in spots but lost his starting job much of the season to Toeaina even though with fatherhood and other elements he matured through much of the past year.

I learned that its not what you go through, but its how you go through it that will determine the outcome, Harris said. You can either get in a situation where you fold if things are not going the way you want it, or you work harder to get out of that situation, and I learned how to persevere through that...

I grew up. I stopped pointing the finger at everybody else and I paid attention to myself, which was the most difficult thing to do."

Harris could return at drastically reduced money but the expectation is that he will look first for a change of scenery for a restart to a once very promising career.

The same applies to Marcus Harrison, a third-rounder who started nine games in 2009 and appeared to be an emerging force. But Harrison was active for only five games last season, took a major step backwards and needs a strong training camp at this point to stay on the roster.

Backer tracker

The organization is topped out on salary at the linebacker spot and has elite talent in place with Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. The concern is that both are on the wrong side of 30, but if there is falloff, it is difficult to discern in two of the NFLs savviest playmakers.

The issue at strong-side linebacker is another matter because of injuries. Hunter Hillenmeyer (concussion), Nick Roach (knee) and starter Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee) were all down at different times last season and only Hillenmeyer is currently under contract.

Brian Iwuh is a top special-teams player (third in tackles) and has been a spot starter during his career, although his one Bears start was for Briggs and Roach is a stronger choice when healthy.

Roach was tendered at the second-round level last year and is no lock to return if a starter opportunity elsewhere presents itself. Tinoisamoa is again a free agent who, like Roach and Hillenmeyer, is a quality team presence. The question becomes how much the Bears can risk at a two-down position.

Secondary considerations

Not all that long ago the Bears believed they were set for several years minimum at cornerback. Significant multi-year financial commitments were made in Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher.

The plan effectively ended week one of the 2009 season when Vasher, after a shaky 2008, was benched along with safety Kevin Payne following a breakdown at Green Bay resulting in a Bears loss. Vasher started once more, in Game 16, but was cut in the offseason.

Zackary Bowman showed promise in Vashers place and was handed Tillmans job at left cornerback to open this season and Tillman shunted over to right cornerback. But Bowman himself was benched in the Green Bay game in week three, replaced by Tim Jennings.

The problem facing the Bears is that Jennings and D.J. Moore, whose play at nickel back produced 44 tackles, 4 interceptions, one for a touchdown, and a sack, is that neither is taller than 5-9. Add to that Tillman entering his ninth season at age 30 and the Bears have a looming need this offseason or next.

No player has been used in more positions than safety Danieal Manning but his future is likely outside of Chicago. The Bears floated contract possibilities with him during last season but Manning wasnt buying at the Bears price, particularly after being unhappy at the tender-offer situation that effectively took him out of any free agency opportunities last offseason.

Manning had perhaps the best season of his four in the NFL and will draw interest elsewhere. Whether it is to the level he seeks is problematic, but the Bears have Wright and Chris Harris in place and will not get into any bidding war.

Next: Special teams

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

3-11busterskrine.jpg
USA Today

The Bears are getting a different type of nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine

When the Bears’ defense takes the field against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Opening Night, they’ll be returning 9 of the 11 starters that were part of a 2018 squad that was one of the best in Bears’ history. 

One of the few new faces that figure to be among the starting 11 is cornerback Buster Skrine. Gone is Bryce Callahan, who left for Vic Fangio’s Denver team after spending the first four years of his career in Chicago. Though Bears’ scouts have had their eye on Skrine for a few seasons now, it was his more palatable three-year, $16.5 million contract -- compared to Callahan’s three-year, $21 million contract -- that finally got him in house. 

“Me and Buster came out the exact same year, and I’ve watched him,” Prince Amukamara said after OTAs on Wednesday afternoon. “He actually played with my best friend and he would always talk about how fast Buster is -- especially when Buster played gunner. 

“I’ve always watched him, and I feel like he’s very similar to Bryce [Callahan] by being quick and being active. I’m definitely happy with the pick up.” 

Once considered a spot to place the third-best, less-athletic cornerback, no position has seen it's value increase so dramatically over the last decade. Offenses are changing dramatically; no team saw more three receiver sets in 2018 than the Bears’ defense. Per Sharp Stats, opposing offenses lined up in 11 personnel against Chicago 78% of the time. The next closest was the Chiefs at 71%, and the NFL average is 65%. 

“I think nickel is a different ball game,” Amukamara added. “I would say it can be one of the hardest positions on the field, just because you’re on an island, but the receiver has so much room to work with. Plus, it’s a lot of mental gymnastics, so you’ve got to know when you’re blitzing, know when you’re running, and so we put a lot on our nickel.” 

Despite not being considered part of a what teams have traditionally considered base defense, the pass-happy nature of this era in the NFL has all but mandated that nickel corners are on the field for most of the defensive snaps. It’s no coincidence that before breaking his foot against the Rams in Week 12, Callahan was on pace to set a career-high in snap percentage. 

“Nowadays, you see a lot more sub packages,” Bears defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend said. “You’re probably playing 70% in sub during a game now… Otherwise, it hasn’t really changed - he just plays more. That’s the thing - he is technically a starter. He’s probably going to run on the field first in a lot of games, and by rule that’s a starter.

“One thing about the nickel position is that you’ve got to do a little bit of both. You can’t just go out on 3rd down and cover and run the option routes. Now they’re going to hand off the ball and find out where you’re at and you’re going to have to make a tackle. That’s the difference in the position now - it’s a first and second down type of guy that has to be able to do it all.”

While Skrine isn’t considered as good a cover corner as Callahan, Skrine’s pass rush and run defense looks pretty similar. Per Pro Football Focus, Skrine’s run defense graded out significantly higher (80.7) than Callahan’s (57.8). 

“With Buster, it’s about his playing experience,” Townsend added. “He’s a guy who will mix it up in the run. He can blitz, and he’s reliable. He’s tough.”

Brian Urlacher misses Top 10 of all-time Bears list

urlacher_1920_bears.jpg
AP

Brian Urlacher misses Top 10 of all-time Bears list

Brian Urlacher played his way into the pantheon of Bears linebackers and the Hall of Fame over his 13-year career in Chicago, leaving no question he belongs among the all-time greats.

Where he stacks up with the best of the best in team history is still up for debate.

Hall of Fame writers Dan Pompei and Don Pierson ranked the top 100 players in franchise history for the team’s official site, and Urlacher fell outside of the top 10.

Urlacher came in one spot ahead of fellow legendary linebacker Mike Singletary, but the greats of pre-merger era earned many of the top spots on the list.

Dick Butkus came in second to only Walter Payton, while old school legends Bill George and Bulldog Turner ranked seventh and eighth, respectively.

It’s difficult to compare linebackers that played 50 years apart, especially when stacking them up with players at other positions.

Urlacher is still near the top of the list of the best Bears ever. They just have so many all-time greats, the likes of Dan Hampton, Richard Dent and Jimbo Covert just don’t have a spot in the top 10.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.