The Chicago Bears' defense went from greatness just a few years ago to being a unit that other teams love to play because their quarterback will rack up big numbers.
This, however, is something that the Bears coaching staff and management put emphasis on this offseason.
There will be at least four people starting this season who didn't start more than one game for the Bears last season. Four is just the bare minimum, however, as there likely will be more new players starting this season.
The first and biggest addition to the defense obviously goes to Julius Peppers. Peppers has had just two seasons with fewer than ten sacks his entire career.
The biggest thing that Peppers will bring to this defense, besides his sacks, is the ability to open up more opportunities for other players on the defensive line. With Peppers likely receiving double teams every play, things will open up for Tommie Harris, who was basically ineffective last season.
Another thing that could help Harris is that he will be completely injury free to start the season (knock on wood). Harris was hindered by a knee injury and, although he missed just one game, his performance suffered greatly.
Having a season where he is completely healthy will give the Bears two dangerous defensive lineman; that is, unless another lineman finds his old magic as well.
Mark Anderson has been relatively quiet since his 12-sack rookie season. He hasn't gotten ten combined sacks in the three seasons since, but that has a lot to do with being behind solid defensive ends Adewale Ogunleye and Alex Brown.
With Ogunleye and Brown both off the squad (Brown is on the Saints, a bit of an upgrade, Ogunleye is sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring, a bit of a downgrade) Anderson will have the opportunity to show that he wasn't a one hit wonder.
If he doesn't show that he still has the skill that landed him on the All-Rookie team he could be replaced by another mid-round draft pick taken this most recent draft.
Corey Wootten was taken in the fourth round this offseason, but would have been taken higher if it weren't for injury concerns, as he was sidelined for a lengthy period twice during his college career.
He was considered to be a second round pick if he had decided to declare for the 2009 draft, but due to an injury that cost him his senior season, he fell to the fourth round.
As we move to the linebacking core, one big name stands out who wasn't there for all of last season.
That name is Brian Urlacher. Urlacher will be coming into this season completely healthy for the first time in a while, and the Bears hope that he can return to the form that had him being mentioned with the great Bears linebackers of all time (which is a bigger accomplishment as a Bear than with any other team).
There was a noticeable gap in the middle of the Bears defense that Hunter Hillenmeyer just can't fill.
Hillenmeyer will, however, be in a battle with Pisa Tinoisamoa for the opportunity to play alongside Urlacher and Lance Briggs.
Tinoisamoa was expected to start for the Bears when he was signed last season, but spent all of the season injured, leaving Hillenmeyer to fill in. In those 14 games, Hillenmeyer amassed 90 tackles and four forced fumbles amongst other solid numbers.
Hillenmeyer is a player who the Bears talk about getting rid of year in and year out, but they never do, and he always has solid seasons while in the shadow of the other two behemoths in that linebacker core.
As for the secondary, the biggest issue that has hurt the Bears defense is inconsistent safety play. They hope to have fixed that with two moves.
Three seasons ago, the Bears traded Chris Harris to the Carolina Panthers. This offseason, they fixed that mistake by trading Jamar Williams for Harris.
Harris will come in and start at strong safety, even though he was at free safety during the most recent off-season drill. Harris will be an upgrade over the revolving door that has been both safety positions the past few seasons.
The other safety spot will likely be held down by rookie third round pick Major Wright. Despite his awesome name (he sounds like some high ranking officer in the army) he has solid skills that were on display at the University of Florida.
Although Wright practiced with the second team, he will likely jump over Daniel Manning to start at free safety. This won't cause Manning to have little playing time, as he will likely shine in the nickel position.
Speaking of corners, the Bears are hoping that their two starting corners will be able to improve their coverage skills for the upcoming season.
Both Charles Tillman and Zackary Bowman are great at creating turnovers, but both also need to improve on their ability to stop the opposing receiver to catch the ball.
There is no better player in the NFL at jumping on a receiver and punching out the ball than Tillman and if he is able to shut down receivers he will jump into the realm of top five corner in the NFL.
Bowman is in a similar position, he just does creates turnovers a different way. Bowman finished fifth in the NFL last season with six interceptions, and he has the size that allows him to be a long term force at corner, something another former ball hawk for the Bears was unable to do (sorry Nathan Vasher).
Bowman and the Bears secondary has done a great job of intercepting passes during minicamp, something that used to be a staple in the Bears defense that has dropped off in recent season.
Bowman was so excited about the secondaries play that he made a plea to writers. "DBs dominated,” Bowman said. “Y’all put that in the paper" (yes, that is three consecutive paragraphs started with the word "Bowman").
Overall, the Bears defense will be greatly improved and ready to jump back into the top ten amongst NFL defenses.
Expect great things from this year's squad, and that way, you can tell every Bears hater "I told you so" when Peppers and Co. are shutting down their favorite team.
I'm Joe W.
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