Tuesday, May 15, 2012

2011 Position Reviews: the Safeties

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.

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.