The other thread seemed to focus primarily on the offense, so I figured a defense thread was appropriate.
Looking back at 2009
The Bears defense was wildly inconsistent last year. Lovie Smith was the de facto defensive coordinator/playcaller and hopes were high for the unit coming into 2009. It played well for long periods against a high-flying Packers offense, in Green Bay, in Week 1. The game was a disaster for the unit, though, as Brian Urlacher was lost for the season with a freakish first-half wrist injury. The Bears also lost free agent signee Pisa Tinoisamoa, the starting strong-side linebacker, on essentially the first defensive snap. He played a few more series against Atlanta in Week 6 before shutting it down for the season.
Week 1 set the tone for the 2009 defense: a makeshift linebacking corps and inconsistent secondary play. The unit played well enough in the following three weeks against Pittsburgh, Seattle and Detroit to get wins, and entered the bye week feeling far too good about itself. The pass rush however, would grow less effective over the season.
The unit was exposed in Atlanta in Week 6, giving up a 40-yard touchdown from Matt Ryan to Roddy White, and most egregiously, a 10-yard touchdown to obvious target Tony Gonzalez with only 4 seconds remaining in the first half. Urlacher's absence in the middle was beginning to be seriously felt.
Week 7 was the first outright disaster as the Cincinnati Bengals rolled right through the Bears defense for 45 points. Former Bear Cedric Benson carried 37 times for 189 yards and a touchdown, embarrasing his former team. The defense gave up 31 points on the Bengals' five first-half possessions.
Week 9 against Arizona was an eerily similar debacle: Kurt Warner threw four first-half touchdowns and the Bears once again gave up 31 first-half points. The defense and coaching staff looked completely outmatched. The Bears' defense had a few more decent performances the rest of the way but were embarrased again in Minnesota (Week 12) and in Baltimore (Week 16).
Looking toward 2010
Heading toward a possible lockout year in 2011, the Bears made the sensible financial decision and elected to keep Lovie Smith at head coach, ensuring that Smith's version of the Tampa-2 scheme would remain for at least one more year. Smith has promoted line coach Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator, the first time the former head coach has held that position. Marinelli is from the same coaching tree as Smith, and few changes to the scheme or play-calling are expected. The team has upgraded several positions but age is becoming a concern at key positions.
The Defensive Line.
In the Tampa-2, everything starts with the front four, which must sustain pressure on the quarterback and keep the linemen off the linebackers, freeing them to make plays. The pressure also enables the scheme to field non-elite cover corners who are big enough to help in run support. The Bears have built their defensive line around talented tackle Tommie Harris since 2004, but he has been unable to sustain a high level of play since recurring knee and hamstring injuries started in 2006. Assorted injuries and attitude problems since then have meant no consistent push up the middle, with at times dire ramifications for the rest of the defense.
Harris' inconsistentcy could have been mitigated by a consistent edge rush, but the Bears have been merely average (if that) in that area since 2005. Left end Adewale Ogunleye was a big trade acquisition in 2004, but he was unable to get to the quarterback consistently. Alex Brown was a loyal soldier and solid all-around player at right end since 2002, but was not an elite pass-rusher. The Bears parted ways with both players in the offseason, opening up both end spots for new starters.
DE Julius Peppers was given huge money during the offseason and will be expected to produce consistent pressure and draw attention away from Tommie Harris in the middle. At 30, the athletically gifted Peppers shows no signs of slowing down but was sometimes inconsistent at Carolina. The Peppers signing was obviously a win-now move intended to help save the jobs of GM Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith. Fifth-year veteran Mark Anderson is expected to start opposite Peppers; he has been unable to replicate his sensational rookie form but did show improvement last year.
The Bears have a pair of untested second year players, Henry Melton and Jarron Gilbert, as well as veterans Anthony Adams, Marcus Harrison and Israel Idonije, in the mix on the line as well. The team likes to play a rotation on the line to keep fresh legs in the pass rush, but it needs consistent, elite play from Peppers and Harris to be successful.
After Tommie Harris, the other foundational piece of Lovie Smith's Chicago defenses has been Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker. The 6'4", 258-pound Urlacher is large enough to dominate against the run, and has been fast enough to turn his back and cover the middle of the field when called upon to help the safeties. Because of this and the expected pressure from the front four, the Bears have generally fielded young, inexperienced, and cheap talent at the safety position over the years. The team has not been successful during Urlacher's injury spells, and losing him for Week One in 2009 was devastating. The team played a mixture of Hunter Hillenmeyer (a marginal starting strong-side linebacker) and Nick Roach in the middle for much of the season, both of whom return to provide depth and challenge for the strong-side spot in 2010.
Urlacher is 32 years of age in 2010, and the Bears shouldn't be expecting more than 2 years of highly effective play in the demanding scheme. For management, much rides on one more effective year from Urlacher, and he should be well-rested and hungry. At least his latest injury was not to his legs or knees, leading fans to hope that his speed will be intact.
The team's best player for the last several years has probably been weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs, to whom the scheme is designed to funnel ball carriers. Briggs has slowly grown into a team leader and is an upbeat presence in the locker room. He is settled securely into his role on the weak-side; he was not asked to step into the middle when Urlacher was hurt.
The Bears were intrigued by Pisa Tinoisamoa at strong-side linebacker in 2009's preseason, only to see him get hurt almost immediately in 2009. He was signed on a one-year contract for 2010 and will compete with Hillenmeyer and Roach for the strong side spot.
The linebackers are the strength of the defense, if not the team, but the Bears will likely need to start planning for the post-Urlacher/Briggs era after 2010.
The Bears probably think they are set at starting corner with rising third-year player Zack Bowman and veteran Charles Tillman. Tillman excels at forcing fumbles and is a team leader but his physical play has led to assorted injuries in recent years. He has demonstrated an admirable ability to play through pain and injury but at age 29 he must prove that he can play a full season. A series of unproven players, including sometime safety/KR Danieal Manning will battle for time at nickle.
Safety has been the biggest problem area during Smith's tenure, with numerous combinations and, frequently, rookie starters. The Bears drafted Florida safety Major Wright in the third round of the 2010 draft, and traded for former Bear Chris Harris, fresh from three mostly good years in Carolina but also recent injury concerns. The team seems always to have five strong safeties and no free safeties; Harris, a likely team leader, may be played out of position at free safety. The team likely hopes that Wright steps up at free safety in the preseason, but it remains to be seen whether Wright has elite playmaking ability at that position.
The defense was put in tough spots by Urlacher's injury and Cutler's interceptions last season, but also embarrased itself on more than one occasion, at key times of the season. As a result the team shuffled some lower-level coaches and opened up the checkbook for Julius Peppers. The quartet of Harris/Peppers/Urlacher/Briggs, all of whom are near or over 30 years of age, must play well and help Smith win in 2010, or a massive defensive rebuilding project will likely begin in 2011.