New coach Smith wants speed on defense

New coach Lovie Smith wants the Bears to be aggressive and fast on defense.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:48 AM ET
By Bob LeGere | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

Under new head coach Lovie Smith, all defensive players were told to lose weight or reduce body fat. The defensive-minded Smith and coordinator Ron Rivera want 11 players getting to the ball as quickly as possible.

Smith says that's why his Rams defense came up with a league-best 46 turnovers last season, and he thinks the same formula will work in Chicago.

The acquisition of AFC sack leader Adewale Ogunleye makes the formula much more potent. The Bears' pass rush was the NFL's worst last season and had not showed any signs of improvement until Pro Bowl WR Marty Booker and a third-round draft pick were dealt to the Dolphins for Ogunleye on Aug. 21. The Bears are also counting on their first two draft picks, DTs Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson, to fortify a mediocre interior defensive line.

Offensively, the Bears will run a West Coast scheme very similar to that of the Rams and Chiefs. They imported former Kansas City QB coach Terry Shea as their offensive coordinator, and he thinks there is enough young talent on the roster to compensate for Booker's departure.

Free agency brought a new featured runner in Thomas Jones, two offensive line starters in ORT John Tait and OLG Ruben Brown and a backup quarterback in Jonathan Quinn.

Quarterbacks: Rex Grossman has grasped the system and established himself as a leader more quickly than most young quarterbacks. He has impressed teammates with his poise, maturity and accuracy and has shown every indication that he will soon be the best quarterback the Bears have had in more than a decade. However, it's inevitable that he will suffer some growing pains this season. Quinn, a seldom-used seven-year veteran, was brought in because he knows the system Shea is implementing from their days with the Chiefs. Quinn was impressive at times in the preseason. Fifth-round pick Craig Krenzel, a molecular biology major from Ohio State, is smart enough to grasp the scheme without getting a lot of reps. The huge concern is the extreme lack of experience, since Grossman played in just three games last season and Quinn has started just three games in the previous six years, including just one in the past five. Grade: B-minus.

Running backs: Jones possesses the explosiveness that the Bears have lacked for years. Jones had three disappointing seasons in Arizona, but late last season with the Buccaneers he flashed the talent that made him a first-round pick in 2000. If he can avoid a tendency to put the ball on the ground, and if he can take the punishment of being the main man, Jones could put up huge numbers rushing and receiving. He will be playing the Bears' version of the role Priest Holmes has played in Kansas City. Coaches have said Anthony Thomas would have a role in the offense, although they haven't been specific. He could figure in short-yardage situations, but he didn't help his cause by missing nearly the entire training camp with an abdominal strain. The A-Train has rushed for over 1,000 yards in two of his three seasons but lacks the breakaway dimension Jones provides. FB Bryan Johnson was acquired from the Redskins for a sixth-round pick because of his toughness and blocking ability. He won't carry the ball much and doesn't appear to be part of the passing game. Grade: B-minus.

Receivers: Booker had just 52 catches for 715 yards last season after grabbing 197 passes for 2,260 yards the previous two seasons, and he'll be missed. David Terrell has been a first-round bust, but now he's a made man and is getting one final shot to start with the new regime. He had the best training camp of his four-year NFL career, but that isn't saying much. Terrell had 43 catches last season but averaged just 8.4 yards per reception, although that was due largely to the conservative scheme of John Shoop. Last year's fifth-round rookies, Justin Gage and Bobby Wade, made solid contributions. Gage was a downfield threat, and Wade worked as an underneath weapon. One of them will start opposite Terrell. Rookie Bernard Berrian adds a speed dimension that is welcome, but he's of slight build. TE Desmond Clark missed more than three weeks of camp with a hamstring, and he didn't quite live up to expectations as a receiver last season, but he was an improvement. Dustin Lyman is a solid backup if he can stay healthy. Grade: C-minus.

Offensive linemen: Pro Bowl C Olin Kreutz will probably be the only starter unchanged from opening day 2003. So, although there is talent here, it may take a while for the group to jell. Tait was the big-ticket purchase ($33 million) in free agency, and he has Pro Bowl potential. Brown came much more cheaply ($4.5 million for three years), and he could be a much better bargain if he can prove he didn't make the Pro Bowl for the eighth straight time last season strictly on reputation. OLG Rex Tucker suffered a dislocated elbow near the end of training camp, the third straight season in which a major injury has shelved him. Brown, who was not in the starting lineup because he disappointed coaches in training camp with his lackadaisical practice habits, was immediately plugged into Tucker's spot. The OLT spot remains a huge question mark. Raw Qasim Mitchell gets a chance to unseat Mike Gandy, a guard who was out of position starting at left tackle the past two seasons. Gandy moved into the No. 1 spot at right guard after Tucker was hurt, but he must withstand a challenge from Terrence Metcalf to keep the job. Grade: B.

Defensive linemen: Smith and Rivera want pass-rush pressure from the line, and Ogunleye provides that. DRE Alex Brown, last year's team leader with 51z2 sacks, missed much of camp with a strained calf, but Ogunleye's presence should help his game. Michael Haynes, whose progress has been slow since he was the team's top pick (14th overall) in '03, should be the No. 3 defensive end. Tackle was such a trouble spot that the Bears used their first two draft picks on Harris and Johnson, but they won't be pushed into the lineup ahead of holdovers Bryan Robinson and Alfonso Boone. However, if one or both isn't starting soon, it will be a disappointment, and an indication that the D-line still needs more help. Grade: C-plus.

Linebackers: MLB Brian Urlacher suffered a pulled hamstring on the first day of training camp that was expected to keep him sidelined throughout the preseason. Urlacher was not involved in a single turnover last season and had just 21z2 sacks, but coaches expect him to be more of an impact player this season. Lance Briggs will be one of the outside starters if he isn't pressed into duty in the middle in place of Urlacher. Joe Odom, who showed promise as a sixth-round rookie last season, has very good speed and impressed in three starts before suffering a groin injury. Odom was slow to pick up the Bears' new defense but has regained the starting strong-side job from first-year player Marcus Reese, who is out 4-6 weeks with a hamstring injury. Grade: B.

Defensive backs: The CB position was a fairly deep and talented spot until Jerry Azumah suffered a herniated disc in his neck that will keep him out until at least October. Former nickel back R.W. McQuarters is expected to fill Azumah's role as a starter, but he has been slowed by a strained hamstring. LCB Charles Tillman is the team's best corner by far. Fourth-round pick Nathan Vasher could provide depth. FS Mike Brown is looking to bounce back to his near-Pro Bowl form after a down year in '03. SS Bobby Gray is pushing incumbent Mike Green. If Green holds the starting job there, he will move to nickel in passing situations with Gray taking over at strong safety. If Gray wins the SS job, Green becomes the full-time nickel back. Grade: C-plus.

Special teams: Normally reliable PK Paul Edinger missed 10-of-36 attempts after not missing more than six attempts in any of his previous three NFL seasons. Edinger struggles to get depth on kickoffs but has the mental toughness necessary to kick in unpredictable conditions. P Brad Maynard was impressive in the preseason after seeing his performance fall off last season. Berrian and Vasher were outstanding punt returners in college who could give McQuarters, who was the primary punt returner in '03, a break from special teams. Berrian could be used to replace Azumah on kickoffs, but veteran WR Ahmad Merritt is much better at this point. Grade: C.

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