Chicago Bears season preview part one of two: The defense

Chicago Bears season preview part one of two: The defense
Veteran Pro Bowler Lance Briggs anchors a new group of Chicago Bears linebackers in 2013 — Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune

Week-1 of the National Football League season is here, and for football fans it’s often the single greatest week of the year. It brings a time of preternatural optimism for fans in just about every city, and a chance at a new start for the 32 teams around the league. The Chicago Bears, being one of those 32 teams which desperately needed a fresh start after a 10-6 season without a playoff berth, needed to make significant changes.

On the coaching staff, the Bears lost defensive-minded head coach Lovie Smith and one of the better defensive coordinators in the league in Rod Marinelli. They were replaced by Marc Trestman, an offensive-minded guy, and Mel Tucker, the former defensive coordinator for the Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively. Tucker brings a familiar style to a veteran defense and will work to preserve the importance of forcing turnovers.

And he ought to.

Tucker is inheriting a group that managed to turn the ball over 53 times in 2012 (24 interceptions and 29 forced fumbles) and score eight touchdowns, putting 56 extra points on the board when the offense struggled to do their job efficiently on the opposite side. And even prior to coming to Chicago, Mel Tucker has always been effective in getting his defensive backs to locate the ball and make plays in the passing game.

In Cleveland, Tucker’s unit was ranked in the top five in the league in forcing turnovers. In three years as a defensive backs coach, his unit managed to intercept 73 passes. As a defensive coordinator in 2008, Tucker's defense had 24 interceptions and was third overall in turnovers in the NFL. Despite many of his teams finishing sub .500, Tucker has made his presence known.

He now steps into a position with a defense bred for his style of play and the caliber of talent necessary to carry on a tradition of strong defense in Chicago.

One of those talented players who will help Tucker do it is cornerback Charles Tillman, who has been an undervalued player through much of his career up until the last couple seasons. The guy can literally do it all. He has the size to defend any receiver in the league, and he has the hands and footwork to make any play on and off the ball.

Tillman is one of the more dependent shutdown corners in the league and has proven himself time and time again against the top receivers. His ability to literally punch the ball out of the receiver’s arms has never been seen before, and in that regard he is cutting a trail for new defensive backs in the league to follow moving forward.

One example of Tillman’s style of play rubbing off might very well be the unexpected rise of CB Tim Jennings, who, at 5-8, 185 lbs., may have been pound-for-pound the most effective corner in the NFL last season. Jennings came away with nine interceptions — which is more than some teams as a whole had — and was incredible defending the pass. His 21 passes defended ranked third in the league, only behind Keenan Lewis and Richard Sherman.

Jennings has great ball skills but is lesser known for his presence as a sound tackling defensive back. His physical style at the line of scrimmage translates into him defending the run and limiting yards after the catch.

The Bears also have developing young safeties in Chris Conte and Major Wright. Conte has gained a reputation for the wrong reasons — he can put a hard hit on a player if need be — but he should be known for his excellent ball tracking skills and hands. In 2012, the Bears were a team you rarely saw getting beat down the field vertically on the long passing play due to the play of Conte and Wright, as well as the defensive line.

At times Chicago would play a single-high safety nearly 20-25 yards off the line of scrimmage. This year, expect teams to have to beat the Bears in the middle of the field on 15-20 yard route patterns.

Mel Tucker has been supplied the talent on the back end, and he is a coach who can absolutely duplicate what Marinelli and the secondary accomplished in 2012.

As for the rest of the defense, it’s no secret that Brian Urlacher is gone, leaving a hole up the middle. That hole has been plugged by veteran middle linebacker D.J. Williams and rookie linebacker Jonathon Bostic. Despite missing time due to injury, and despite the mostly sound play from the rookie Bostic, it sounds as if Williams will get the nod as the starter. Bostic, however, is still sure to get some snaps in relief and will contribute on special teams.

The Bears still have veteran linebacker Lance Briggs, who has continually produced among the top weak-side linebackers in the league. SAM linebacker Nick Roach, who signed with Oakland in the offseason, was replaced by former Panthers LB James Anderson.

The middle of the defense could potentially be the weak point this season, and teams will look to beat or at least test the Bears there. Tight end matchups might also dictate how teams try and move the ball against this group. I believe Bostic will end up being the starter by the middle of the season, and he could potentially add that extra speed and pursuit the Bears need in the middle.

As I mentioned briefly, a big part of the Bears’ success in the secondary last year was thanks to the consistent pressure generated by the front four. Chicago’s defensive line is stacked with talent and major upside from the younger players. It starts with defensive end Julius Peppers, who has been putting up double digit sack numbers since he entered the league in 2002. Last year, Peppers had his highest sack totals since 2008 with 11.5 and his highest numbers with the Bears.

Peppers did not, however, affect the game like he did in 2010, where he was a threat in nearly every facet of the opposing team’s game plan. He did not put up quite the sack numbers the Bears were looking for, and his tackle and turnover numbers were down. Due to some lingering knee issues, Peppers would take plays off, but this season he should be back to impacting nearly every play on the field.

Henry Melton, who is looking for a long-term deal next off-season, will have to be a key part of this line. The NT is the weak spot on the line, and Melton will have to be a run stopping force. Melton’s best season as a Bear was in 2012, and he should look to build off that and become the consistent, elite defensive tackle that his play suggest he can be.

Peppers and Melton might be the anchor of the line, but younger guys like Corey Wootton, Shea McClellin and Stephen Paea will now be tasked with producing as full-time starters. Wootton has shown signs of progressing, but he needs to do it consistently throughout a sixteen game stretch. McClellin still hasn't convinced people he was worthy of a first-round pick, and he needs to develop into an every down type of player this season, in addition to upping his sack total.

The Bears force teams into lots of third downs, and they need these guys to produce in those situations. The younger core of athletic defensive players on this team is potentially the future, and that’s why the development of guys like Wootton, McClellin and Bostic is so important to see this year. It’s these guys who will eventually either help this team achieve their stated goal of championships or fail to do so.

Check back soon for part two: The offense …

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