Secondary becomes primary concern for Bears
BOURBONNAIS - A team's secondary won't determine whether it wins the Super Bowl.
Defensive football remains too interconnected to point to one position group as the leading indicator of either success or failure.
But the Bears' startling inability to stop Buffalo's passing game in Saturday's exhibition opener (the Bills completed 85 percent of their throws and posted a 96.7 quarterback rating) points the spotlight on the defensive backs and makes one wonder:
How does the Bears' talent level in the secondary - as measured by their NFL draft status which indicates potential - stack up with recent Super Bowl champs?
How about with NFC North foes who stand in the Bears' way this year?
As it turns out, seven of the last 10 Super Bowl champs featured at least one NFL first-round pick in their starting secondary.
The 2000 Baltimore Ravens, regarded as one of the greatest defensive units in NFL history, went to the biggest extreme and trotted out three first-round picks with a second-rounder to get the job done.
And the three Super Bowl champs that didn't have a first-round pick in their secondary? They each had one second-rounder in the lineup.
Which brings us to the Bears.
In Saturday's exhibition loss at Buffalo, they had a fourth-rounder (Nathan Vasher), a fifth-rounder (Kevin Payne), a sixth-rounder (rookie Al Afalava) and a seventh-rounder (Trumaine McBride) serving as the starters.
That's not quite as dire and below the norm as it sounds.
When cornerback Charles Tillman (back surgery), free safety Danieal Manning (hamstring) and cornerback Zackary Bowman (hamstring) get healthy - presumably in time for the Sept. 13 opener at Green Bay - the Bears should have two second-rounders and two fifth-rounders in their lineup.
That wouldn't put the Bears terribly far behind the Minnesota Vikings, who boast a secondary of Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Winfield (a first-rounder in 1999) and three recent second-round picks.
"Tillman's been a good player for us," said Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. "We like this Zack Bowman. He got banged up. Durability's been an issue. Nathan Vasher, hopefully we get Nathan back to form. Those are two pretty good corners for us at one time. We get them back, we're kind of right there in the mix."
While Angelo hasn't selected a defensive back in the first round since joining the Bears in 2001, he swapped the team's 2006 first-rounder to Buffalo to get the picks that became Manning (early in the second round) and nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek (early in the third).
"Corner is a very difficult position to find because you're looking for athleticism and size," Angelo said. "You try to find a big guy with top talent, it's hard to do. They go very high in the draft. They usually get drafted a round, even two rounds (earlier) than another position, because of the value of that position.
"So it's not a matter of we don't put any emphasis on it. We drafted guys here. It all starts with your first and second corners. You've got to have two quality corners, particularly your first guy. We feel good. We get our guys back, we'll feel a lot better about the position. If we don't? Yeah, it's a concern. It is."
A concern that'll fall directly on new defensive backs coach Jon Hoke's shoulders. When he watched the Buffalo tape, he was disappointed in the secondary's lack of consistency with their technique.
"He graded us tough," said Corey Graham, who split his time between nickel and left corner. "We definitely need to go out there and make some more plays, make some things happen, create more turnovers.
In the Bears' first practice after the Buffalo game, Hoke took the team's seven healthy cornerbacks aside and worked extensively on tedious matters like footwork and hand positioning - though he would've done the same had the Bears picked off 10 passes and not allowed a single completion.
"You've always got to work technique, especially at defensive back," Hoke said. "That's the one thing you've got to rely on is your technique. If everything else fails, technique will get you through the game. Your keys will get you through the game.
"And if you're consistent with your technique, then you're going to put yourself in position to make plays."
Though that's not the most important step.
During the 11-on-11 portion of Monday's practice, McBride covered wideout Earl Bennett so tightly on a deep route that the undersized corner had one hand on Bennett's facemask and the other pulling Bennett's orange shorts down to his knees.
Bennett still caught the ball.
"(McBride) has got to finish," Hoke said. "That's football. Being in great position and not making plays doesn't get you a whole lot."