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updated: 7/21/2014 6:07 AM

5 key questions facing the Bears defense

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  • The Bears defense will be a mix of new faces and familiar this season. Clockwise from upper left, Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen, Tim Jennings, Lance Briggs, and Charles Tillman are some key the players for the Bears.

       The Bears defense will be a mix of new faces and familiar this season. Clockwise from upper left, Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen, Tim Jennings, Lance Briggs, and Charles Tillman are some key the players for the Bears.
    Photo Illustration by Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

 
 

Last season the Bears defense produced more questions than answers as it struggled to help a team that finished 8-8 record despite a productive offensive attack.

With the first training camp practice just days away at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, here's a look at some of the key questions facing the defense, which added some new faces in the offseason.

Q. Will the Bears be better on the defensive side of the ball?

A. They couldn't get much worse. The Bears allowed 2,583 rushing yards and an average gain of 5.4 yards per run last season, both of which were the worst in the NFL. The Bears were also a league-worst 32nd in total yards per play, tied for 30th in points allowed (a franchise-worst 478) and 30th in total yards allowed.

After an evaluation period following the season, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was retained, although it seemed to be far from a slam-dunk decision. Coach Marc Trestman considered the epidemic of injuries on defense more responsible for the poor performance than Tucker's coaching. Without significant improvement this year, however, Tucker won't get another chance.

Q. Why will the defense be better?

A. In order of importance: Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and rookies Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson. It's no coincidence that all four are defensive linemen, a group whose failings had much to do with the defense's poor play last season.

Allen's name is more familiar because he has terrorized Bears quarterbacks twice a season for the last six years while playing for the Minnesota Vikings. Houston has toiled in relative obscurity with the Oakland Raiders, where good football players go to disappear.

Allen is a five-time Pro Bowler and second among all active players with 128 sacks, including a current streak of seven straight years with at least 10 sacks. Allen is 32 and has some hard miles on him, but his pass rush hasn't dropped off much. He had 11 last season, which will be a welcomed addition to the Bears, who had just 31 sacks last season, tied for the fewest in the league.

Houston just turned 27 and could have his best football ahead of him. He is arguably the NFL's most effective run stuffer among defensive ends, and will provide a stout anchor for a run defense that was an embarrassment last season. At 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, Houston has the girth and strength to also play inside at tackle and will probably do so in nickel, allowing Tucker to get more pass rushers on the field.

There shouldn't be any pressure on the rookies to start on the D-line, but they are expected to provide reliable depth and contribute in a rotation behind Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea.

Q. What is the status of players coming back from injuries?

A. Free safety Chris Conte (shoulder surgery in March) will not be 100 percent at the start of camp. Middle linebacker D.J. Williams should not have any lingering affect from last season's chest injury that landed him on injured reserve after just six games.

Elsewhere, Charles Tillman's triceps injury is not expected to be a factor. Defensive tackle Nate Collins (torn ACL in Week Five) will not be 100 percent for a while and could have an uphill fight for a roster spot. Five-time Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson (torn Achilles in 2103 with the New England Patriots) might have the toughest road back considering he's 34 years old.

Q. How will the safety positions shake out?

A. Last year's starting strong safety, Major Wright, left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency and won't be missed after a poor 2013 season for the Bears. Conte wasn't any better, and he's a long shot to keep his job, considering his shoulder surgery and increased competition from several contenders.

While Conte has held the starting job for the last 2 seasons, his poor play last season created what should be an interesting and wide-open battle for playing time at both safety positions.

The Bears added three newcomers in free agency: Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray. The Bears also drafted Brock Vereen in the fourth round and re-signed veteran Craig Steltz.

Figure Mundy as one of the starters, and he's played both safety positions in the past. Mundy started 10 games for the New York Giants last season after serving a four-year apprenticeship with the Pittsburgh Steelers behind Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark.

Jennings started 26 games for Green Bay over the previous two seasons, but he has just 1 career interception, and the Packers made no effort to retain his services.

McCray and Steltz have been mostly backups and special teams players. If Vereen can handle the mental aspects of the position, he could wind up winning one of the starting spots.

Q. Will Shea McClellin be better at linebacker than he was at defensive end?

A. Too easy to take the obligatory cheap shot here, but the Bears are giving their 2012 first-round draft choice an opportunity to most effectively utilize his strengths. Those include moving in space and rushing the quarterback, without worrying as much about having to anchor vs. the run.

The move makes sense since McClellin was neither big enough nor strong enough to be an every-down lineman in the NFL, and his body type and natural weight (around 250) are those of a linebacker.

• Follow Bob's Bears and NFL reports on Twitter@BobLeGere.

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