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New coach Smith wants speed on defense

9/3/2004 - Chicago Bears

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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