Young Bears showing big improvement on defense
If the Bears have any chance of springing a Thanksgiving Day upset on the Lions in Detroit, they'll need continued improvement from the young, unheralded defenders who have stepped up their performances recently.
Ten players in their first or second seasons have become significant contributors for a defense that bounced back from allowing 50-plus points in back-to-back games against playoff contenders. The same defense has yielded just 13 points in each of the last two games against teams with losing records.
Part of the reason is the improved play of inexperienced players, which is important to their NFL future and to the Bears' ability to build a foundation going forward.
"It's been a process," defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said of the youth movement. "We feel good about the guys we have here and what they can become. It's a lot of practice reps (and with) some of these guys, a lot of game reps. Just learning from mistakes, building confidence, continuing to take coaching.
"The guys want to do well, and it's important for them. That's a good sign for us. With the young guys, they have to play well NOW, when they get the opportunity. The league doesn't care how much experience you have or don't have. It's really a production-based deal."
It was expected that draft picks such as cornerback Kyle Fuller (first round), defensive tackles Ego Ferguson (second) and Will Sutton (third), and safety Brock Vereen (fourth) would contribute, and they have. But undrafted rookies such as cornerback Al Louis-Jean and linebacker Christian Jones have exceeded expectations.
Louis-Jean stepped in last week when the starter, Fuller, suffered a knee injury before halftime against Tampa Bay on Sunday, and there was no drop-off in the defensive unit's performance. Jones stepped in after Lance Briggs was hurt, recovered a fumble and had 5 tackles.
Nickel cornerback Demontre Hurst, who was undrafted in 2013, forced a fumble inside the red zone and had 2 quarterback pressures. Defensive end David Bass, who was drafted in the sixth round by the Oakland Raiders in 2013 but waived before the season, got his first sack of the season against the Bucs while stripping the ball from Josh McCown.
Defensive end Cornelius Washington, the Bears' sixth-round pick in 2013, was inactive for 10 games as a rookie, didn't play in six others and made cameo appearances in two games. He got his first sack on Sunday.
"They're getting practical playing time in crunchtime situations," coach Marc Trestman said. "(Part of) what you're seeing is the result of our veterans working together with them, spending time with them one-on-one and in meetings when the coaches aren't around. We've got some good mentorship going on."
Although Jones has started just two games -- after several injuries hit the linebacker corps -- he's 10th on the Bears with 38 tackles.
"He's stepping up," Trestman said. "He's running to the football. You can see the growth in practice; the learning curve is getting much better. He's part of this young group of guys that we have that are getting opportunities and making the most out of them."
Louis-Jean didn't turn 21 until last month, but he didn't back down from Vincent Jackson or Mike Evans, the Bucs' big-time, king-size wide receivers.
"He made a really nice play for us down in the end zone," Tucker said of Louis-Jean's first pass breakup. "He flew around. He tried to finish some plays, tried to top off some piles, like we ask our guys to do, to finish through the whistle. He played with confidence, and we have confidence in him to go in and make plays for us."
At 6-foot-1 and 187 pounds, Louis-Jean has the size all NFL teams need to deal with monster wideouts. He played just three seasons and 21 games at Boston College, but he has overcome his inexperience with other skills.
"He's competitive," Trestman said. "He's been physical, he's gone in and tackled, and he's gone hip-to-hip with some good receivers in the times that he's played. He's long and got good speed, so we're excited about him."
While no one was excited about Washington after what was essentially a redshirt season in 2013, he has been a different player this season.
"He's made tremendous strides," Tucker said. "He's very athletic, he's very strong, he's very explosive. He's taken coaching. He wants to be a good player, so he works at it, day-in and day-out.
"He's the same guy, looking to get better. He's taking advantage of the opportunities he's gotten in practice. He's done a fantastic job with that."
Hurst has stood out in multiple areas. After the season opener, he was waived, signed to the practice squad and then elevated to the 53-man roster, where he's now the No. 1 nickel. He's also a key special teams coverage guy and he has emerged as an impact blitzer.
"He comes hard, that's key," Tucker said of Hurst pass-rush ability. "He did a real nice job of winning on the edge, and he was relentless in his pursuit, and that was big."
A lot of little-known players have been coming up big for the Bears the last few weeks.
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