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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

2011 Bears Position Reviews: The Cornerbacks

Today we get to the most misunderstood unit on all of the Bears, the cornerbacks. Now I’ll admit that the 28th overall ranking in pass yards allowed is a bit higher than the Bears would like, but that’s very rarely indicative of the weaknesses of the corners and can usually be attributed to the safeties (yep) and often the defensive line (yep, especially for weeks 1-5). I’d also point out that the Bears faced Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers (2), Cam Newton, Matt Stafford (2), Michael Vick, and Philip Rivers, something no other team in the NFL had to do. It’s also worth noting that they went 5-3 against that group with Cutler starting.

Also, as those of us who still support the Cover 2 when the Bears have the talent to run it have always said, yardage =/= points, since the Bears were 14th in scoring defense (and much better than that after the lineup shakeup after the first Lions game) and teams had a 22-20 TD:INT ratio against them. Also, while they allowed 4,065 yards, they did so on 631 attempts for a meager 6.41 YPA. That’s not bad at all.

The Bears starting pair of corners were actually quite good, with neither Charles Tillman or Tim Jennings allowing people to complete 60% of tosses against them and neither allowed a pass longer than 47 yards this year. I’m still not sure how many years the Bears have to run this scheme before people realize what exactly the purpose of a corner is, but I’ll content myself with the knowledge that the top of this group is better than most want to give them credit for.

#33 Charles Tillman, 16 games started, 99 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INTs, 2 TDs, 12 Passes Defensed, 4 Forced Fumbles, 2 Fumble Recoveries 

Next to Jay Cutler, P’nut Tillman may honestly be the best Bear in recent memory to take an unwarranted amount of shit from meatball fans. “WHY DA HELL WAS HE 10 YARDS AWAY FROM DAT RECEIVER DAT CAUGHT DA 15 YARD SLANT PASS?!?!” Well, usually because that’s not his guy, or he handed him off to the safety, as the defense is designed to do.

Alas, I’m not going to sit here defending the Cover 2 once again, the important thing is discussing Tillman’s season. Suffice it to say, his Pro Bowl nod was well deserved. He nearly broke the 100 tackle barrier (a testament both to the importance of Cover 2 corners in the run game and to Tillman’s ability to limit most receivers to very little YAC, one of the major staples of the defense as well). He had 3 INTs, 2 of which he took to the house. He also forced another four fumbles, which is yet more reason that Tillman’s holographic statue (they’re coming) will just be him repeatedly punching the ball out of the hands of unsuspecting ball-carriers.

He also did his best to shut up the naysayers who think he can’t play man when he blanketed Roddy White and Calvin Johnson, among others, and owned their shit(Megatron’s only big play against the Bears, the 79 yd TD in Detroit, happened because Brandon Meriweather, per usual, was nowhere near where he was supposed to be and got his ass benched because of it). He had a couple of tough games against speedsters like Vincent Jackson and Steve Smith, but outside of those two games he was fantastic. Thanks, P’Nut.

#26 Tim Jennings, 16 games, 15 games started, 76 tackles, 2 INTs, 10 Passes defensed, 1 FF, 1 Fumble Recovery

Last year the Bears took a flyer on Tim Jennings and were pleasantly surprised as he had a career year. This year, he actually played better, so, that’s nice. Jennings does most of the things that a Cover 2 corner should do. He plays the run well, as his 76 tackles show. He is very rarely caught out of position, since, as I noted when referring to PFF’s article that named Jennings and Tillman as the top two corners in the NFC North this year (suck it, Woodson), neither Jennings or Tillman allowed a completion % of 60 against them, and neither allowed more than a 47 yarder in coverage.

Jennings, however, doesn’t take the ball away much. In two years as a mostly full time corner for the Bears he’s forced just 5 turnovers (3 INTs, 2 FF), which is okay if you’re Nnamdi or Revis playing in a man defense where the other team just doesn’t throw at you, but for a Cover 2 defense that feeds on takeaways, it’s not a good thing. Lovie’s dead serious about this, which is why you saw Jennings hit the bench for his stone hands against Oakland and a few other missed opportunities late in the season, and it’s also why the Bears lead the NFL in takeaways since Lovie took over in 2004. If Jennings wants to hang onto his spot for a third year, he’s going to need to make more big plays.

#30 DJ Moore, 13 games, 1 game started, 43 tackles, 4 INTs, 1 INT return for TD, 8 passes defensed.

I love DJ Moore. He's got personality (favorite quote of all time: "Well, shit, man, ain't nobody wants to lose to the Lions. Geez Louise.")He's everything a Cover 2 nickelback should be. He's annoying (watch the receivers he covers, they're all pissed by the end of the day), he's instinctive, and he's a ballhawk (8 INTs in two years). Lovie's defense needs that guy. Ricky Manning, Jr. did it well in 2006 before he fell off the map. DJ's managed for two years to always be there when the ball is batted in the air, and that makes him very good at his job.

His job is in the nickel, however, and no one should forget that. He's not great in man coverage. He's overwhelmed easily by big receivers. Frankly, I'll never forget the touchdown Calvin Johnson scored in single coverage against DJ back in Detroit in 2010, where Megatron didn't even deign to stiff arm DJ. He simply laughed at DJ's futile attempts at tackling while he strolled into the endzone on a 45 yard catch-and-run. That's why the team keeps giving guys like Bowman and Jennings opportunities on the outside while DJ stays put. This is smart, and no one should question it.

#26 Corey Graham, 16 games, 5 tackles, 3 INTs, 3 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble.

Corey Graham made the most of the few reps he got at corner this year, forcing a career high four turnovers. He was actually the highest rated of all of the Bears corners according to PFF, but his snap count was too small to actually rank him. He was mostly a special teamer, and a good one, and Brad Biggs will tearfully remind the Bears that they will rue the day he left for Baltimore on many occasions. That said, he didn't play enough to really show whether or not his good numbers this year were an aberration or an indication of his skills, and the Bears apparently never saw enough of him as a corner that they were willing to go with him full time (except in 2008, when injuries forced him into the lineup and he was God awful). I wish him well, but I doubt the Bears will miss him much on defense.

#35 Zackary Bowman, 16 games, 1 game started, 9 tackles, 1 fumble recovery

I do wish Zack Bowman had panned out. He has good size, he's capable of generating big plays (6 INTs, 10 passes defensed, and a FF in 2009, his only full year of a starter), and he would have added a nice infusion of youth to the secondary. Unfortunately, you really don't need me to tell you what Bowman's issue is, because you all watched in 2009 and 2010 as he gave up more long balls than Ruben Quevedo (yes, a baseball reference. My apologies). He got one last chance to show something this year and didn't. Now he's a Viking. That's good stuff there.

That's all for now. Last year the Bears carried just the five corners listed above. Of those five, Bowman and Graham are gone, replaced by Kelvin Hayden, Jonathan Wilhite, Isaiah Frey, and Greg McCoy. Of those, I'd expect Hayden to make the roster for sure. The Bears have eyed Hayden for most of his career, and they nearly signed him last year, although they deemed him unhealthy. His performance in Atlanta early on showed that he wasn't 100%, but I'd expect he must have improved for the Bears to take a chance on him now when they passed only a few months ago. Who knows what to expect of Wilhite, a corner from the Patriots awful (but man-coverage based) secondary. I don't expect more than one of the Wilhite, McCoy, and Frey trio to make the team. My guess is at least one of the rookies ends up on the rookie redshirt IR program. Either way, I'd expect Jennings and Tillman to enter the season as starters, with DJ still in the nickel and Hayden pushing for Jennings' job. This is one position where the Bears needed depth more than an upgrade, and they seem to have accomplished that.

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