Johnson to replace injured Harris in Bears' secondary

Updated: December 8, 2005, 5:16 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

One hallmark of the Chicago Bears' top-rated defense has been its ability to put the same players on the field virtually every week, with the unit using only three different lineups in the first 12 games of the season, not counting a week in which the club was forced to open a contest with a "nickel" scheme.

But an injury to free safety Chris Harris, who suffered a sprained right medial collateral ligament last week, will force a change in the secondary for Sunday's game at Pittsburgh, with second-year veteran Todd Johnson moving into the staring lineup in a mild surprise. Johnson got the nod over six-year veteran Mike Green, in part because the coaches view him as a more aggressive run defender, but also because the more senior Green continues to be out of favor with the staff.

Johnson, a fourth-round choice in the 2003 draft, started 10 games in 2004 after spending his entire rookie campaign on injured reserve with a broken jaw. Despite the stability of the Chicago lineup, he becomes the third different starter at free safety this season, after Green and Harris.

With the exception of the Oct. 9 game at Cleveland, in which the Bears employed three safeties in the starting lineup when the Browns opened the contest with a multiple-tight end set, free safety is the lone position in the secondary to undergo any changes. Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman have been the starters at the two cornerback spots and Mike Brown has started every contest at strong safety.

Because of some defensive sets the Bears will incorporate this week in an attempt to slow the Pittsburgh running attack, Johnson will play some snaps at strong safety on Sunday as well, with Brown switching to free safety on those occasions. The positions are virtually interchangeable in the Chicago defensive system. There probably will be some instances, too, in which coordinator Ron Rivera has three safeties on the field together.

"Todd is probably a little bit better [than Green] in run support," said head coach Lovie Smith in explaining why the younger player will get the starting assignment. "We feel like it's going to be a physical football game this week."

But the elevation of Johnson to the lineup is also reflective of the staff's feelings about Green, whose stock has plummeted, despite a resume that includes 42 starts, including all 16 games last season. Although he signed a five-year, $10 million contract extension in October of 2003, Green was the subject of trade rumors earlier this season, and, with a scheduled base salary of $1.38 million for 2006, could be playing elsewhere next year.

It is believed the Bears will attempt to trade Green, 29, in the offseason.

Green was said to be disappointed at having been bypassed in favor of Johnson but, at least publicly, reacted with diplomacy. Said Green: "Sometimes stuff like this humbles you. I just have to make the most of it."

The coaches hope to get the most out of Johnson, a former University of Florida star who seems to be most effective when playing close to the line of scrimmage, as likely will be the case on Sunday at Heinz Field. The Steelers' running game has sputtered in the past month but, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hampered by a right thumb injury which might eventually require surgery, Pittsburgh coaches will attempt to insulate him. They certainly don't want him throwing 41 times, as he did in last Sunday's loss to Cincinnati, a game in which Roethlisberger established a career high for passing yards (386) but also threw three interceptions.

In 11 appearances this season, all as a backup or on special teams, Johnson has recorded 19 tackles. While his tenure in the lineup could be for just one week, there is a chance that Harris could be sidelined by the knee injury for more than the Pittsburgh game, and coaches will not rush him back too soon.

A sixth-round draft choice, Harris took Green's starting job in the second game of the season. The former Louisiana-Monroe standout has 49 tackles, one interception, five passes defensed, a sack and two fumble recoveries. He has become an important component in a Chicago defense that leads the NFL in fewest yards surrendered and fewest points allowed.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.