BOURBONNAIS -- When quarterback Jay Cutler mentioned offhandedly at the start of training camp that not everyone has bought into the new system under Marc Trestman, it was only natural to assume he meant defensive players.
Former head coach Lovie Smith has overseen that side of the ball since 2004. The veterans on defense, especially those who had been around for several years, thought of Smith as their coach, their only coach, and many of them were bitter when he was fired.
For the last nine years, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman played for Smith, and they played extremely well.
Briggs went to seven straight Pro Bowls from 2005-11. Tillman has been to the last two Pro Bowls. His 39 forced fumbles since his rookie season of 2003 are the most in the NFL, and he's third in franchise history with 33 interceptions. Tillman holds the team record with 9 defensive touchdowns, and Briggs is tied for third with 6 defensive touchdowns.
Together, they account for 295 starts, including 153 by Briggs, who has missed just seven starts in 10 years and just four in the last nine years since being drafted in the third round in 2003. Tillman, taken a round earlier in the same draft, has missed just three starts in the last six years.
If those two don't buy in this year to Trestman and his defensive coordinator, Mel Tucker, the unit will take a tumble from last season, when it was No. 3 in points allowed and No. 5 in total yards allowed.
"It's different," Briggs said. "You've been in a system for a long time. You're now told to change and do things a different way. It just takes time."
In addition, for the first time since 1999, the Bears' defense is without middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, leaving Briggs to take over the role as the defensive signal caller after, as he says, being "spoiled" by Urlacher's steady leadership for the last decade.
"It's tough," Briggs said. "But we're all grown men. We have to continue to move on."
Not to worry. All is well. Both players seem to be more than willing to get with the program. It will help that Tucker is running the same 4-3 scheme with some Cover-2 in passing situations that the Bears employed under Smith.
"It was tough in the beginning," Tillman said. "But it's coach Trestman's team. What he says goes. I'm here. If I hadn't bought into the system, I wouldn't be here. I'd be at home somewhere. I've completely bought into this system."
Tillman is in the final year of a seven-year, $41.5 million contract, a deal that was backloaded with a $7.95 million cap number for this year, giving the Bears a chance to dump it if Tillman's play dropped off at age 32. It's a common practice in the NFL. If a player declines, the team cuts him and saves the money. If he's still playing at a high level, the team is happy to pay.
The Louisiana-Lafayette product has never been better than he has the last two years. He has 14 forced fumbles, including 10 in 2012, 6 interceptions and 4 recovered fumbles.
"They backload all that because they don't expect the guy to be here," Tillman said. "So, kudos to them backloading, and kudos to me playing well."
Coming off the back-to-back Pro Bowls, it's natural to assume the Bears would want to lock up Tillman for another couple years even at his age. But there will be no extensions this year.
"Ahh, I don't know man," Tillman says when asked about a new deal. "That's just business. My fate is in their hands, as far as what they want to do with me. Whether they keep me, hey, if not, so be it. I'm just here to play football."
So, too, is Briggs, and that's a good thing for the Bears' defense.
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