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.
Bears at Bourbonnais: If you goHere are some fast facts for Bears fans visiting training camp. Hours and schedules can change daily, so visit chicagobears.com for the latest schedule before traveling to Bourbonnais.
Directions from the suburbs: Tri-State Tollway (294) south to I-80 west. Take I-80 west 3.6 miles to I-57 South, then 29.3 miles to Bradley/Bourbonnais Exit 315. Follow the exit ramp as it curves to the right onto Rout 50 south. Turn right onto Armour Road. At the second traffic light (the stop-and-go light for Packers fans), turn left onto Convent Street, which is also Rout 45/52. There is a Speedway gas station on corner. Follow the curves past the side entrance to Olivet Nazarene University campus on the left and continue to the main entrance that is lined with 10 flags.
Cost: Admission and parking are free.
Hours: The gates to training camp open at 9 a.m. for morning practices. For 3 p.m. practices (Aug. 4 and 10), gates open at about 2:30 p.m.
Parking: Lots will open one hour before the gates open.
Practice segments: The "team" portions of morning practices (when the offense runs plays against the defense) will begin at about 10 a.m. Players will be stretching and running "individual/positional" drills from 9-10 a.m.
Activities: Camp grounds will stay open about one hour after practice. Activities include family-friendly events such as a kids interactive area, radio remotes with local and national sports radio stations, a pro shop, and promotional areas with games and prizes from Bears partners. There are autograph opportunities with Bears players and coaches.
Concessions: Food and drink are available at stands located between the fan entrance and the practice fields.
Bears training-camp scheduleFriday, July 25: 9 a.m. practice (NO PADS)
Saturday, July 26: 9 a.m. practice (NO PADS)
Sunday, July 27: 9 a.m. practice
Monday, July 28: 9 a.m. practice
Tuesday, July 29: OFF
Wednesday, July 30: 9 a.m. practice (Ladies Day)
Thursday, July 31: 9 a.m. practice
Friday, Aug. 1: 9 a.m. practice (Blue & Orange Day)
Saturday, Aug. 2: 6:45 p.m. practice at Soldier Field (Family Fest)
Sunday, Aug. 3: OFF
Monday, Aug. 4: 3 p.m. practice (Armed Forces Day)
Tuesday, Aug. 5: 9 a.m. practice
Wednesday, Aug 6: 9 a.m. practice (Youth Football Day)
Thursday, Aug. 7: OFF
Friday, Aug. 8: Bears vs. Eagles, preseason game at Soldier Field
Saturday, Aug. 9: OFF
Sunday, Aug. 10: 3 p.m. practice (Run with Staley)
Monday, Aug. 11: 9 a.m. practice
Tuesday, Aug. 12: 9 a.m. practice (final training camp practice)
Thursday, Aug. 14: Bears vs. Jaguars, preseason at Soldier Field
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 ½ 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 ½ 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 ½ 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.
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