The oft-criticized (by morons) Bears pass-defense had, by any measuring stick, a great year this year. In the Cover 2 you shouldn't really judge a team based on the amount of passing yards they allow, but the Bears finished 8th in the NFL in that category nonetheless, allowing just 214 net yards passing per game. More importantly, the Bears secondary limited opposing passers to just 6.3 YPA. They allowed only 19 TD passes while snagging an NFL-leading 24 interceptions, returning 8 of them for touchdowns, tops in the NFL by a wide margin. They also finished second in the NFL with 94 pass breakups. By every single measuring stick they were a great pass defense, so basically anyone I've heard criticize the Cover 2 can probably kiss my ass.
#33 Charles Tillman: 16 games, 16 games started, 85 tackles, 3 INTs, 10 FF, 2 fumble recoveries, 11 passes defensed, 3 touchdowns.
Charles Tillman is, quite frankly, probably the most underrated Bears defender ever. It's understandable, given that he's played in a scheme that's basic principles are well-known and yet completely misunderstood, leading to the oft-mistaken impression that he can't play man-coverage, and that he's played on a defense with Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Mike Brown, Julius Peppers and other more well-known stars his entire career. The fact that he's made his first two Pro Bowls back to back in the last couple of years means he's finally getting proper recognition, but in reality he's arguably a Hall of Fame corner if people didn't identify the overrated concept of a "shutdown" corner as the only one's permitted through those doors. In his ten year career he's forced over 70 turnovers, he's broken up 126 passes, and he's scored nine touchdowns. He routinely ranks among the league leaders in lowest passer rating against, but, alas, he's a "Zone Corner" and he'll forever be viewed as some kind of lesser being in comparison to a guy like Nnamdi Asomugah, who coasted on his reputation for years and actually benefited from having shitty teammates that opposing QBs were more willing to test. What a joke.
The question with P'nut is how long he can keep it up, and whether he'll be doing it much longer in a Bears uniform. With NFL interceptions leader Tim Jennings on the opposite side and also on the last year deal, it seems unlikely the Bears will be able to pay both what they'll be able to demand. At that point Phil's going to have to make a hard decision about whether a 32 year old corner is worth a gamble for one more big contract. Something tells me that decision won't be as easy as cutting a washed up linebacker with a bum knee.
#26 Tim Jennings: 14 games, 14 games started, 60 tackles, 9 INTs, 21 passes defensed, 1 TD.
Tim Jennings got a bum rap before last year. Pro Football Focus would tell you that he, and Tillman to a lesser extent, were blamed the struggles of the Bears safeties, and that since he's come to Chicago Jennings has been great in coverage and has rarely allowed the deep ball. Lovie only fed fuel to the misguided fire by benching Tim for a game in 2011 because he wasn't generating enough turnovers. Tim responded in a big way by swiping nine interceptions, and breaking up a whopping 21 passes. This seems like heresy, especially since I just referred to him as a Hall of Famer, but I wouldn't necessarily blame Phil for extending the younger (and equally , if not more productive over the last two years) Jennings before Tillman.
#24 Kelvin Hayden: 16 games, 2 games started, 35 tackles, 1 INT, 5 passes defensed, 4 fumble recoveries.
The Bears coveted Kelvin Hayden for several years, and it wasn't really surprising to see them strike the second he was finally healthy enough for an entire season. He became the starting nickel in place of DJ Moore less for his production than his ability to keep his mouth shut, and he responded with a relatively average season, although he was burned deep several times throughout the year. His main value is that he has the size and experience to play outside if Jennings or Tillman gets hurt, something DJ never really could do. I wasn't surprised to see the Bears bring him back, but at this point in his career he's nothing special.
#30 DJ Moore: 13 games, 2 games started, 30 tackles, 2 INTs, 2 passes defensed.
Oh DJ, you blithering idiot. Never mind that you'd had two great seasons leading the team in interceptions and playing a very solid nickel. Never mind that you'd developed into a very good pass-rushing artist in the nickel blitz. You had to criticize your quarterback to the media while playing for a coach who, despite his gentle facade, could teach Bill Belichick a thing or two about controlling his player's public image. Was it stupid of the Bears to give up on a promising young player because of one comment? Absolutely. That said, DJ's limitations meant he was never going to be more than a nickel, and it seems as though the team will be looking and hard about potential heirs to Tillman and Jennings in the draft, so perhaps not much was lost.
#38 Zack Bowman: 11 games, 0 games started, 2 tackles, 2 passes defensed, 1 fumble recovery, 1 TD.
Speaking of heirs to Tillman, the last one that failed miserably is somehow still on the roster, and just got re-signed. For what it's worth, he graded out positively in the few meaningful reps he played on defense, but he's about as much of the team's future at cornerback as I am.
#21 Major Wright: 16 games, 16 games started, 71 tackles, 4 INTs, 8 passes defensed, 1 FF, 1 fumble recovered, 1 TD.
Before this year I'd practically given up on the idea of Major Wright ever being the guy the Bears said he was going to be, based as much on his poor health as his mediocre production. Then...well, things changed. He started all 16 games, he was a dominant force against the run, he stopped making huge mental mistakes in pass defense and, outside of one brutal de-pantsing at the hands of Vernon Davis during the 49ers game, he played like a Pro Bowler in every other game this season, finishing with a +5.1 rating from PFF. He did drop an interception the Seahawks last drive in regulation, possibly changing the entire fortunes of the Bears organization, but we'll see how that works out. In the short term, I apologize for doubting you, Major.
#47 Chris Conte: 15 games, 15 games started, 67 tackles, 2 INTs, 9 passes defensed, 1 fumble recovered, 1 TD
After safety had been a never-ending revolving door for the Bears since Mike Brown's first injury in 2004, it was a huge relief to have Conte and Wright start all but one game together. In their last 21 games with those two guarding the back half the Bears have allowed just 19 TD passes vs. 31 interceptions and an opposing QB rating of 68. Conte isn't a particularly great player, as he's a an above-average defender against the pass and a less-than-good run defender, but he knows his role and doesn't make the big mistake, and that allows Wright to player closer to the box and allows the team to feel comfortable mixing up coverages and blitzes underneath. As long as the two of them can stay healthy, the future of the team at the safety position seems pretty stable.
#37 Anthony Walters: 16 games, 1 game started, 8 tackles, 1 fumble recovered
Just a body. Fine special teamer, wasn't an embarrasment when he played, probably going to get squeezed off of the roster with the addition of Tom Zbikowski and the health of Brandon Hardin.
#20 Craig Steltz: 13 games, 0 games started, 6 tackles, 1 forced fumble
We all railed against Craig Steltz for years, and in 2011 he was somehow the Bears best safety. It wasn't even a "best of an awful bunch" kind of thing. He was legitimately good. Then the Bears re-signed him, and I fearfully awaited the day when he had to play meaningful reps and his good 2011 was revealed for the aberration I believed it to be. Turns out he didn't really have to play at all. Also a good chance that he'll lose his roster spot in favor of Brandon Hardin, because the team will probably toss his higher salary in favor of the promising youngster now that Zbikowski is there to provide depth at strong safety. I'm okay with this possibility, because I still believe the best Craig Steltz is the one you never have to use.
That's all for now. Next time: Special teams.