Nothing safe about Bears’ safety position
Bears free safety Chris Conte injured his shoulder tackling Redskins running back Evan Royster on Saturday. Conte hopes to be back for the season opener.
John Starks | Staff Photographer
It's another Bears season … and another epidemic of injuries at the safety positions.
The Bears have endured 56 changes at the starting safety positions since Lovie Smith became head coach in 2004, so the absence of injured free safeties Chris Conte and Brandon Hardin is hardly unprecedented.
With Bears safeties, strong or free, it often comes down to the last man standing. But the injuries don't usually start piling up until the regular season.
On Friday night against the New York Giants, Craig Steltz will start alongside Major Wright.
Steltz normally plays strong safety, where he started five games last season, but that's where Wright's starting. But Steltz is considered the top backup at both spots, and players are required to know both positions.
The 24-year-old Wright is entering just his third year, but that's long enough to know about the Bears' history of injuries at safety. He started 11 games last season, but he also has missed nine games in his first two seasons, mostly because of injuries.
"That's always frustrating," said Wright, who started games at strong and free last year paired with Conte, Chris Harris, Brandon Meriweather and Steltz. "I dealt with (injuries) for two years.
"It's something you just have to deal with, put it in your past and just build on whatever you've got going on. Things happen. You've got to get over it and come back stronger."
Steltz, at 26 and in his fifth NFL season, is the seasoned old pro in the safety group. He provides experience, versatility and consistency.
"It's great," Wright said. "Craig is a vet. He's one of the older guys in the room. Everybody kind of looks up to him because he's been in this defense for so many years.
"We both communicate. We feel like we're on the same page in every defense."
Steltz also brings an attitude the younger players can learn from.
"It helps, whether it's at strong safety or free safety, being able to step in at any point in the game and be ready," he said. "Whether you're second- or third-string, just prepare like you're the starter. Then, no matter what the situation is, you're able to step in.
"Just take it day by day. You can't look to the past or the future, just take the moment and what the situation is, and get better this week. Worry about the situation now, and let's go out there and have a good game and let's finish up this preseason strong."
Conte's shoulder popped out of joint while he was making a tackle Saturday night. The injury will keep him out for the remainder of the preseason, but he hopes to be back for the regular-season opener.
Hardin is recovering from a neck injury that will keep him out even longer, so there are opportunities for young players to move up the depth chart.
For players such as Anthony Walters, it's a chance that may not come again.
"I've had a couple of chances since I've been here," said the 23-year-old Walters, who was signed as an undrafted rookie out of Delaware last year. "This one I'll have more chances, more reps to prove myself."
Walters also will get more opportunities on special teams, where backup defensive backs are almost always expected to contribute.
He led the Bears with 2 special-teams tackles against Washington and had the second-most points on special teams behind kicker Robbie Gould.
"It's a definite opportunity for (all backups), and Anthony Walters played well," coach Lovie Smith said. "We asked him to improve his play from the first game. He did that as a safety and also as a special-teams player."
The 6-foot-1, 207-pound Walters doesn't have to be told how important special teams are to the Bears and to his career.
"It's the way to get on the field, and it's the way to stay employed," he said. "I'm going to do whatever they ask to make the team. Especially here; we're top five every year in special teams. They take it extremely serious."
That's not the only lesson learned by Walters, a cornerback in college.
"I thought I was mostly a cover safety," he said. "I was coming here expecting to play free safety. Then I realized there aren't any cover positions on this team. Everyone is going to hit. You better hit or you won't be in there, and that's what I've learned."
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