When the Bears started the 2014 season, the secondary was rated a strength, particularly at cornerback. Pro Bowl’ers Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman were starting, with Kyle Fuller, a first round draft pick, as the nickel back. In a defense that could have exactly zero players in the same spots they began last season in, the entire starting secondary is assured to be new, with Alan Ball moving into Jennings’ spot and Sherrick McManis standing by as the No. 3 and nickel corner.
Indeed, three of the current four starting defensive backs were not even Bears this time a year ago.
Whether anything stays that way, which it was to open the game against the Cincinnati Bengals with rookie Adrian Amos and veteran Antrel Rolle at safety, is of course not assured. But Amos has settled in next to Rolle, and Ball, an eight-year veteran out of Illinois who has played with Dallas, Houston and Jacksonville, with 44 career starts, was signed to a one-year contract worth $3 million for a reason.
“My confidence is growing,” said Ball, who adds six inches of height at the position over Jennings’ 5-8. “I’m really getting a feel for what Vic [Fangio] is doing and how he’s calling the defense.
“I’m getting a feel for what the safeties are doing; we have new additions in Antrel and Adrian over there, and Kyle at cornerback. We’ve been rotating groups and rotating guys. You get that gel between the whole group.”
The issue for Ball has been health over his recent career. He was ensconced as a starter with Houston in 2012 and Jacksonville the past two seasons but missed 15 of 48 games over those three seasons with a foot injury (2012, five games), groin strain (2013, one) and season-ending biceps injury last year (nine games.
Ball, 30, had surgery on the foot last offseason and benefited from the down-time just recovering overall health.
“You know part of the off-season and the preseason is getting guys ready for the regular season,” said coach John Fox. “But he's got length, I think he's played at a high level, he's adapted to our system very well and he's produced since he's been here.”
Ball, a seventh-round draft pick of the Cowboys in 2007, has six career interceptions, all over the past five seasons, and 34 pass-defenses. He also was a member of playoff teams in Dallas and Houston.
For the Bears, more than the names and faces are changing. The shuffle of players and coaches means that a group identity has yet to be forged among players, and the kind of second-nature cohesion, anticipation and familiarity are works in progress
Not a problem, nor that unusual, to Ball’s thinking.
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“I think every year going in you want a new identity no matter where you are, no matter what guys you’ve got out there,” Ball said. “You’re always searching for a new identity. The team is not going to be the same from last year or the year before. Going forward, every step we take, we’re a new group no matter who’s out there. You’ve got to find your identity.
“So going forward we want to create our identity and step on the field week one and establish who we are. We’re doing it in practice piece by piece as a defense. But until we get out there week one and really do what we gotta do, that’s when you know who you are.”