We're reaching the end of the 2011 Bears position reviews, and we end the defense on a low note: the safeties.
The safety position has been a problem for the Bears since Mike Brown started tearing everything around 2004. They managed okay with Brown and Harris and Brown and Danieal Manning in 2006 when Mike was healthy, but they've been more or less been throwing crap against the wall and hoping it sticks since 2007. In 2010 they got a career year out of Danieal Manning, who finally put it all together just in time to price himself out of the Bears range, and Chris Harris, who had 5 INTs. This year the Bears threw Harris and Major Wright out there, hoping at least for a repeat of 2010 from Harris, and planned to bring Brandon Meriweather and Chris Conte along slowly. That all went out the window when Harris and Wright were hurt and ineffective, Meriweather was the single dumbest defensive back to ever slap on a Bears uniform, and we eventually got way more of Craig Steltz than I'd ever feared we'd see in a million years, so of course he played the best of the entire group. On the whole, the safety position was a major weakness for the 2011 Bears and we can only hope things will be better next year.
To the details!
#27 FS/SS Major Wright, 12 games, 10 games started, 58 tackles, 3 INTs (1 TD), 6 Passes Defensed
When Major Wright came out of college the guy he most favorably compared to was Mike Brown. This year he showed some of that when he managed an interception in 3 straight games during the winning streak and seemed to come around as a tackler. With 6 pass breakups he also showed that he is capable of making some plays when he's able to find the ball.
There are two problems with Major Wright, as we know. 1) He gets injured as often as late career Mike Brown. 2) He's not very good at finding the ball most of the time. Major missed several contests early and late in the year and injuries limited his effectiveness in several of the games where he did play. He was notably caught out of position on Devery Henderson's 79 yard score in the Saints game. He got hurt that game as well. Remember the infuriating touchdown throw from Tom Brady to a wide open Deion Branch on the last play of the first half of the Pats game in 2010? That was Major's guy as well. He's missed many other plays, but those two stick out prominently in my mind.
Overall, Major's 2011 campaign was a minor disappointment. He showed enough to merit the chance to fight to keep the job next year and he still has considerable potential, if he can stay healthy. I'm not going to shed any tears if Brandon Hardin leapfrogs him, though.
#47 FS Chris Conte, 14 games, 9 games started, 29 tackles, 1 INT, 2 Passes Defensed
It's humorous that Pro Football Focus' evaluation of Chris Conte (when they named him as one of the top two safeties in the NFC North by default) was that he didn't do anything special, but also didn't get beat either. That's exactly how I'd describe Chris Conte, and it isn't a bad thing. Would I like to see him make more big plays? Absolutely, but the biggest problem in the Bears secondary during their 2-3 start was that they were giving up an uncharacteristic amount of deep balls. Conte put a stop to that. He was alright against the run, but didn't play it very much since he was so far off of the line of scrimmage. I like the kid. He deserved the spot he was given on the Pro Football Weekly and Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Teams. We'll see what he can do with more responsibility next year, but he absolutely should be penciled in as the starter at Free Safety.
#20 SS/FS Craig Steltz, 16 games, 5 games started, 43 tackles, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles
I'm still flabbergasted by this. Absolutely flabbergasted. Steltz seemed permanently relegated to special teams duty (where he is very good) and got torched by Jermichael Finley in his first start of the year. Then he got more playing time throughout the year thanks to the injuries and ineffectiveness of Wright, Harris, and Meriweather, and I'll be damned if he wasn't the most effective safety the team had this year. He played the run very well, he wasn't beat deep in coverage, and he somehow forced me to accept that it was a good thing the team re-signed him. It'll be interesting to see what happens next year. He may prove that this year was an aberration or he may win a regular starting job for the first time in his career. The team clearly envisions Brandon Hardin, a natural strong safety, as a starter somewhere down the road, and Steltz's natural position is free safety, where Chris Conte seems to be the more talented player. Either way, Craig somehow managed to get me to drop "F*&king" as his middle name, so that's progress.
#31 SS/FS Brandon Meriweather, 11 games, 4 games started, 32 tackles, 2 passes defensed
Feel free to point out how big of a moron I am on this one. Meriweather was all hype, a product of Miami and a guy who made some flashy plays for the Patriots (who rightfully grew tired of tolerating his bullshit and cut him) and received way too much praise for it. The Bears were understandably infatuated with his undeniable talent and decided to force a freelancing, undisciplined rogue into their scheme, which requires absolute discipline from the safeties above all else. The result was predictably disastrous, with Meriweather frequently out of position on deep throws (Calvin Johnson's 73 yd TD on 3rd and 10 in Detroit being the one that got his ass benched) and drawing an excessive number of flags for his headfirst, no-armed style of bouncing off ball-carriers in a pathetic attempt to make a tackle. While he slowly improved late in the year, he was far too stupid and reckless to justify his contract and I'm beyond giddy that the Redskins of all teams decided to take a chance on him. So long, Brandon.
#46 SS Chris Harris, 3 games, 3 games started, 28 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 3 passes defensed.
I was truly saddened by Chris Harris' fate this year. He's a nice guy, if his communications with fans on Twitter are to be believed. He was a guy that the Bears never should have let go, and he spent his three best years playing for the Panthers. In 2010 he stabilized the position, but lost a step this year and never recovered, especially after he suffered an injury in week one. He rushed back to play in Detroit, but was caught of position in the passing game and on Jahvid Best's two long runs. He was underwhelming against the Bucs and dropped what could have been a game-clinching interception, and soon got his walking papers. He was ineffective after he was picked up by the Lions, and is currently out of a job and seems likely to stay on the market. Good bye, Chris. Thanks for the memories.
There were also a couple of special teams only guys, like Winston Venable, who were technically listed as safety but took no reps at the position. Who knows if Venable will make the roster again, but he's a nonfactor on defense.
Of the 2011 safety group, Meriweather and Harris are obviously gone, leaving Steltz, Wright, Conte, and new rookie Brandon Hardin to battle it out. Hardin's an intriguing prospect, with free safety speed and coverage skills but prototypical strong safety size and strength. I'd expect the Bears to break camp with Conte and Wright as the starters, but I wouldn't be shocked to see Hardin and Conte as the main two by the middle of the season.