Tom Zbikowski has a battle on his hands for playing time in the Bears’ secondary this season, but if there’s anyone who can handle himself in a fight, it’s the former Buffalo Grove High School star.
In addition to playing five seasons in the NFL, Zbikowski is 4-0 as a professional boxer, including three fights two years ago when the NFL was on strike and there were no off-season programs.
Professional boxing is on hold for now as Zbikowski focuses on winning a roster spot on a Bears team with a crowded secondary. Both starting safeties from last season — Major Wright and Chris Conte — are back.
Zbikowski also will be competing with five-year veteran Craig Steltz, last year’s third-round pick Brandon Hardin and Anthony Walters, who started the season finale in 2012 when Conte missed his only start (hamstring injury).
Clearly the feisty veteran is not being handed anything by his hometown team.
Asked about Zbikowski’s status, new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was noncommittal.
“We’ll see,” Tucker said. “He’s there for a reason. Obviously he passed the evaluation, and he’s here to compete. We’ll see what his role is, and that will become more defined as we go.”
Zbikowski, who started a career-high 11 times last season with the Indianapolis Colts, is ready to rumble.
“Actually, I prefer this,” he said last week at the Bears’ first minicamp under new coach Marc Trestman. “It’s kind of like starting at the bottom. You have to work every single day, every single rep, and you definitely have a little more intensity coming into every day.”
Trestman certainly wasn’t rushing to give the former Notre Dame all-American a vote of confidence.
“I don’t know yet,” Trestman said, when asked about Zbikowski during minicamp. “He’s worked very hard like the other guys the last two days. He’s running to the ball, and he’s very enthusiastic about being here, so that’s all I can tell after two days.”
Whether or not Zbikowski cracks the starting lineup, he still can be an asset to the Bears based on his value as a special-teams standout. And, considering the Bears have used 12 strong safeties and 15 free safeties over the last nine seasons, Zbikowski provides an insurance policy in case of injury.
That was his primary role for four years in Baltimore after the Ravens drafted him in the third round in 2008, although he started 14 games.
“That’s the way the safety position goes,” Zbikowski said. “Sixteen games is a long season, and it’s a demanding position where a lot of things can happen. You just keep working every day and get better as a player and let the chips fall where they fall.”
Over the last nine seasons under Dave Toub, the Bears excelled on special teams, and that tradition is expected to continue under Joe DeCamillis. The 25-year NFL special-teams coaching veteran knows what Zbikowski brings to the field.
“I know one thing, I’m not going to mouth off to him because he’ll pop you,” DeCamillis joked. “I saw a couple of those fights.”
Turning serious, DeCamillis said Zbikowski brings “toughness and the experience. He’s done (special teams) not only from a coverage standpoint, but he’s done some return stuff in the league.”
Zbikowski has 16 career punt returns for 101 yards (6.3-yard average) and 20 kickoff returns for 428 yards (21.4-yard average).
Former Bears guard Tom Thayer, the color commentator on the team’s radio broadcasts for the past 15 years, knows what a player with Zbikowski’s talents brings to a team that has had 57 lineup changes at the safety position in the previous nine seasons.
“How many times have they gone through a season without making changes?” Thayer said. “There’s strength in numbers, especially strength in numbers with experience.”
Zbikowski, he noted, has experience at two safety positions with successful defensive schemes, though both the Ravens and the Colts play a 3-4 defense and the Bears use a 4-3 defense.
“You take all that intelligence,” Thayer said. “But the real key is to make sure that he’s a veteran coming here with a willingness to play special teams.
“The day they signed him, (they knew) he could get in the mix of the core group of special-teams players they have here, which is as important as any other position.”
As a safety, the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Zbikowski’s strength is playing in the box, close to the line of scrimmage as an extra run defender who can stuff the run. Simply put, he’s known more for hitting hard than running fast.
But, as Zbikowski proved with a leaping interception and long return during his limited reps in minicamp, he can cover the pass and he’s usually in the right place at the right time.
“I don’t think Zbikowski is the fastest safety,” Thayer said, “but knowledge is speed. You can take a safety that runs a 4.8 (40-yard dash), that has predetermined knowledge — before they ever snap the ball — to be in the right position (and be) successful.”
Thayer said Zbikowski’s veteran play reminds him of a favorite saying used by legendary Bears strength coach Clyde Emrich.
“Knowledge earned is better than knowledge learned,” Thayer said. “Zbikowski played on a (physical) defense in Baltimore with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed and those guys, and he has that mindset. That’s what he brings to the team.”
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