In this past Sunday's loss to the Seattle Seahawks, second-year free safety Chris Conte was only able to manage a few snaps before his flu symptoms kept him from returning. Veteran Craig Steltz replaced him in the lineup, but the defense was gashed on the ground for 176 yards and for 283 through the air.
Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson looked poised in the pocket, was rarely under pressure, and effectively ran the read option against what was viewed as one of the league's best defenses.
The Bears played a lot of single-high safety to slow down the run, bringing Steltz down in the box with Wright forced to cover the entire back half of the field. While certainly a great athlete, Wright at times allowed the receivers to get behind him, and he was then a step or two behind in his coverage, allowing plays down the field.
Wright dropped an interception that could have sealed the game for the Bears late in the fourth quarter and was just a step behind on the naked bootleg that was run by Wilson that led to the game-winning touchdown throw to Sidney Rice.
Last season, the Bears did not ask a lot of Conte, primarily wanting him to stay deep and not let the receiver get behind him. He played well in his rookie season, but some were unsure if he would be able to make the next step.
Following a strong camp and preseason, the Bears gave him more responsibilities this season, including bringing him down in the box and using him to blitz the quarterback. Although he has yet to register a sack, he has done a great job at forcing opposing quarterbacks out of the pocket and into bad throws.
Conte's athleticism and speed allow him to show blitz and be able to drop back into coverage and not be out of position. Where Wright struggled in keeping his man in front of him, Conte has excelled at it much of this season.
He has been tested deep and he has made plays (two interceptions, one fumble recovery). His tackling has also improved as he is tied for second in the secondary in tackles with 54.
The drop off from Conte to Steltz last Sunday showed just how much he improves the team's speed on defense. With Brian Urlacher out of the lineup with a hamstring injury, expect the Bears to use a lot more single-high safety with Conte, as he has the ability to cover large areas of the field.
Ultimately this defense will only be successful if it is able to get pressure up front, but Conte's speed and athleticism were sorely missed against Seattle this past Sunday and proved just how important the young safety is.