NFC North: Bob Babich

A few thoughts after listening in on conference calls with Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and his new defensive coordinator, Alan Williams:
  • Frazier said Williams will bring some "new energy" and "fresh ideas" to the defense, but it's clear the Vikings aren't changing the fundamental approach they have taken for the past six seasons. Williams and Frazier are both former assistants to Tony Dungy, who popularized the Tampa-2 scheme the Vikings now use. "We are going to keep a lot of the same principles in place," Frazier said. "… I did think a little bit about some other options that were available, but after evaluating our season and looking at our history on defense, we didn't want to get too far away from the things that have let us be successful here in the past." At this point, it would be a stunner if the Vikings shift to a 3-4, as they reportedly were contemplating.
  • Williams has never been a defensive coordinator, and Frazier will take more of a hands-on approach to the defense -- at least initially -- while Williams grows into the role. Frazier stopped short of saying who would call the defensive signals in Week 1, but he made clear he doesn't want to be a head coach/defensive coordinator. "Some guys can do that," Frazier said. "I don't think I can. But I do want to be involved early."
  • In a situation that is unusual, to say the least, Frazier said that former defensive coordinator Fred Pagac has agreed to return to coach linebackers along with current linebackers coach Mike Singletary. Frazier was not specific about roles or titles, but said that both Pagac and Singletary would be a part of daily linebacker meetings. I couldn't begin to explain how that will work. The Vikings are a 4-3 defense, but in nickel they play only two linebackers. Do they need two full-time veteran coaches? Asked how they would split duties, Frazier cited the need for someone to focus on sub packages.
  • Frazier used the Chicago Bears' 2010 defensive shuffle two years ago as a reference point, when coordinator Bob Babich was returned to his role as linebackers coach and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli took over for Babich as coordinator. "I've seen it work before in Chicago," Frazier said. "Between Babich, Rod and [coach Lovie Smith], they made it work. As long as you have the right people, it can work. … After sitting down and talking with the guys about what I was thinking and hearing their feedback, that assured me it could work."
  • The Bears analogy doesn't totally work. If Pagac is in the Babich role, moving from coordinator back to linebackers coach, then how does that account for Singletary? I have to assume Pagac is the primary linebackers coach, with Singletary serving in some kind of less-defined role that allows him to remain on staff as a trusted adviser to Frazier, a longtime friend.
  • As presumed, defensive backs coach Joe Woods will remain in his current role. Except for a few quality control assignments, the Vikings' defensive staff is now set.
The Chicago Bears have answered the question we asked Tuesday. After denying offensive line coach Mike Tice permission to interview for a promotion with the Tennessee Titans, the Bears added a year to his contract. He is now signed through 2012.

Contracts for NFL assistants are almost always guaranteed, although the Bears are among the teams who might reduce their pay in the event of a lockout. Regardless, Tice was quoted on the Bears' website as saying: "I look forward to continuing the progress we made on the offensive line in 2010. Our guys are motivated and I am excited to get back to work with them."

The Titans wanted to interview Tice for their open offensive coordinator job and were serious about moving quickly. Less than 24 hours after the Bears denied their request for an interview, the Titans hired Chris Palmer for the job.

The team also announced contract extensions for three other assistant coaches: running backs coach Tim Spencer, linebackers coach Bob Babich and secondary coach Jon Hoke. The only change for the 2011 staff is the hiring of Mike Phair as the defensive line coach, replacing Eric Washington.

The big question is when the Bears will complete negotiations with coach Lovie Smith, whose current deal is set to expire after the 2011 season.
We're Black and Blue All Over:

Oh boy. It looks like a bit of a family rivalry has developed between a past and current Green Bay Packers tight end.

Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com brings us up to speed on the back-and-forth between Mark Chmura and Jermichael Finley. During his weekly radio show, Chmura said of Finley: "He is a great player, but he is a moron." He also suggested that Finley "shut his mouth."

Thursday, Finley said: "That's just one of those jealousy things, I guess. I'm not trying to call him out or nothing. But that's how I see it." Finley added that he wouldn't recognize Chmura if he walked into the Packers' locker room, said he would love to "be in his face right now" and added: "I think he thought they stopped inventing the Super Bowl when they won it in '96, so he doesn't want to see that from my standpoint."

This exchange wasn't entirely unpredictable. Finley has never been shy about expressing his thoughts publicly. And although Chmura was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame last month, his job now is to be a talk radio host. Ultimately, we'll see where his loyalties lie.

Continuing around the NFC North:
  • The Packers want linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive end Cullen Jenkins to line up on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage so that pass protection doesn't slide their way, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  • Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press Gazette on Packers rookie cornerback Sam Shields: "... less than two weeks into training camp the receiver-turned-cornerback from the University of Miami has the organization as excited as it's been about an undrafted rookie in the last 20 years." As we noted last week, Shields has been impressive as a cornerback but has dropped too many kick return opportunities.
  • The Minnesota Vikings' final full practice of training camp included a fight between defensive end Ray Edwards and running back Toby Gerhart. The Star Tribune has details.
  • U.S. Sen. Al Franken stopped by Vikings camp Thursday and spoke with Bob Sansevere of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
  • The annual FavreWatch is "nothing new for me," said Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com has more.
  • Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times: "The Bears are believed to have pulled off an NFL first: They have three successive defensive coordinators from three successive seasons -- Bob Babich, Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli -- still working on the same staff. It's a bizarre situation that somehow makes perfect sense to the guys involved."
  • Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald: "Rashied Davis is one of 10 receivers competing for six jobs in the Bears' training camp, and the other nine are all bigger and younger than he is. But Davis is well on his way to locking up a roster spot because, in addition to being a precise route runner and an experienced veteran, he's the best all-around special-teams player of the bunch."
  • Bears starters could play as much as a half in Saturday's preseason opener at San Diego, writes Michael Wright of ESPNChicago.com.
  • The Detroit Lions would like receiver Bryant Johnson to become a legitimate threat this season, writes Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com.
  • Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh has made great strides since ending his five-day absence from training camp, according to Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
  • Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press has a rundown of who will and won't play in Saturday's preseason opener against Pittsburgh.
Chicago players are ready to "run through a frickin' wall" for new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, linebacker Brian Urlacher told Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune. That's great news for Bears fans.

I'm not sure I can say the same for this Urlacher quote, referring to coach Lovie Smith and former defensive coordinator Bob Babich:

"It's the same system and Lovie still oversees it. When it was Bob, it was Lovie. When it was Lovie, it was Lovie. Now that it's Rod, it's going to be Lovie. Lovie still has all the input in what we do. It's just a different guy making the calls.

"We tweak things every year. We try and find what we did wrong last year and try and fix it. We don't always do it right, but we're always trying to figure out what we didn't do right and do it better the next year.''

You wouldn't expect Smith, a longtime defensive coach, to overhaul his scheme at this point or even change the fundamentals of how he administers to the group. But if you've watched the Bears' steady defensive decline over the past three years, you might recognize the value in at least a fresh coat of paint.

If the Bears are merely expecting Marinelli to execute game day calls better than Babich or Smith before him, it's hard to imagine the defense making a substantial improvement in 2010. You with me or against me on this one?

Third and one: Bears

January, 4, 2010
1/04/10
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After Chicago’s 37-23 victory over Detroit, here are three (mostly) indisputable facts I feel relatively sure about:

  1. Stranger things have happened, but I would be surprised if the Bears fire coach Lovie Smith. There’s no doubt they would prefer not to pay him $11 million to walk away, as his contract would require. But if they were looking for an excuse to do nothing, consecutive victories to end the season probably provided it. I think Smith and the front office should face serious questions for why the Bears lost seven of eight games during a crucial part of the season. But more than anything, I want to know who is in charge. Who makes the final decision on Smith? Is it the McCaskey family? Team president Ted Phillips? General manager Jerry Angelo? Will Smith stay because no there is no credible person authorized to fire him? Call me crazy, but I want to know who is pulling the strings these days at Halas Hall.
  2. Assuming it happens, part of Smith’s deal to return should be to hire a legitimate defensive coordinator. This season was a referendum on Smith’s ability to personally improve the defense; he took over as the primary playcaller and left quasi-coordinator Bob Babich to coach the linebackers. The defense had its struggles last season, but it fell off a cliff in 2009. The final numbers are in the books, and the Bears ranked No. 21 in the NFL in points allowed per game (23.4), and were No. 27 in third-down conversion percentage (41). Smith needs to devote someone else full time to the role of resurrecting this scheme.
  3. Quarterback Jay Cutler gave us plenty to consider as we head into the offseason. It appears that offensive coordinator Ron Turner is on his way out the door, but whoever calls the Bears offense next season should make a point to let Cutler out of the pocket as much as possible. There’s absolutely no doubt he feels more comfortable in that setting. Allowed to break free much more frequently over the past two games, Cutler threw eight touchdown passes and one interception. Three of those scores went to receiver Devin Aromashodu, whose late-season emergence provided Cutler another level of credibility within the organization. Cutler lobbied for his presence all season and finally got his wish in Week 14. From that point, Aromashodu caught 22 passes for 282 yards and four touchdowns.
And here is one question I’m still asking:

Will the Bears blow up their defensive personnel this offseason or maintain the current nucleus? It’s already pretty likely that defensive end Adewale Ogunleye won’t be back. What will happen to defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who finished the season with a career-low 2.5 sacks? What about the secondary? Was Zack Bowman’s six interceptions enough to guarantee him a starting job opposite Charles Tillman? Does any safety on this roster deserve to return?

Tracing the Bears' defensive decline

November, 10, 2009
11/10/09
2:30
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Jerry Lai/US Presswire
The Chicago defense has been exploited in recent losses to Cincinnati and Arizona.

Posted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert

Walking into Chicago’s locker room Sunday, I was tempted to ask a few players for fingerprint identification. They had to be imposters, right? There seemed to be no way a Bears defense could allow an opponent to score on its first six possessions, as Arizona did Sunday in a 41-21 victory.

Nor is it believable that two weeks ago Cincinnati scored on its first seven drives. Both the Bengals and Cardinals pulled back in the second half, the kind of pity move a college coach makes against an overmatched homecoming opponent. Or, as FOX analyst Troy Aikman said during Sunday’s broadcast: "I thought high school football was played on Friday.''

Indeed, no NFL defense should ever be trampled to this degree, no matter how explosive the opponent. That it’s happening to the Bears, a team built on the concept of a swarming and dominating defense, is particularly jarring. What has happened since the Bears' defense carried the team to the Super Bowl three years ago? Let’s examine a few key developments, using the chart at the bottom of this post to trace its statistical decline.

Uncoordinated

We could spend all day debating coach Lovie Smith’s decision to fire defensive coordinator Ron Rivera after the 2006 season. Let’s put that argument aside for a moment and agree on this: Three years later, Smith still hasn’t found an adequate replacement.

Smith acknowledged the failure of Bob Babich’s tenure last winter, gently demoting him to linebackers coach while allowing him to keep the coordinator title. Smith has taken over as the primary playcaller and de facto coordinator, but if anything, the Bears' defense has performed worse under that arrangement.

Take a look at the chart. You’ll notice that most statistical measurements began a decline after the 2006 season except for one: Third-down conversions.

The Bears ranked second among NFL teams in stopping opponents on third down in 2007 and fifth in 2008. Third-down defense is a great equalizer, and on more than two-thirds of those occasions the Bears were holding the line and getting the ball back for their offense.

Third downs are also a strong measure of scheme and play calling. Much like a two-strike count in baseball, third down is football’s greatest battle of wits. You use tendencies, history and instinct to guess what the offense will fall back on to maintain possession.

On that count, Smith has failed as a playcaller. Opponents are converting 42 percent of third downs this season, plummeting the Bears to No. 25 in the NFL.

Consider the Cardinals’ first third-down conversion last Sunday. The Bears showed blitz by running linebackers Lance Briggs and Hunter Hillenmeyer to the line, but ultimately rushed only four players on third-and-10. They defended with their traditional Tampa 2 scheme, but cornerback Zack Bowman played far off of receiver Steve Breaston, who ran a simple square-in for a 23-yard reception. If you don’t challenge the quarterback, you have to challenge the receiver. Smith’s call did neither, and the play looked like a half-speed practice rehearsal.

"[We’re] not making plays on third down," Smith said. "I know that’s a pretty simple answer to your question. But we have to get off [the field] on third down."

To this point, Smith isn’t giving the Bears a fair chance.

Talent drain

The Bears built a strong nucleus of players earlier in this decade, but over the past five years they’ve failed to infuse any notable talent to maintain their skill level. The last impact player the Bears drafted was defensive tackle Tommie Harris, their first-round pick in 2004 whose production has fallen off considerably over the past two years.

In Week 9, the Bears started six players who arrived after 2004. Only defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, acquired in a 2005 trade with Miami, has been a difference-maker -- and even Ogunleye has dropped off since notching 10 sacks in his first season with the Bears.

There has been some hope for Bowman, who seems to have some ball skills. But to this point, his performance has been no different than any of the legions of middling draft picks the Bears have trotted out at defensive back.

Defensive players drafted in past five years
Year Player Comment
2005 S Chris Harris Traded to Carolina
2006 S Danieal Manning Has struggled as a starter
2006 DT Dusty Dvoracek Injuires ended his Bears career
2006 LB Jamar Williams Has been a backup
2006 DE Mark Anderson Invsible after 12-sack rookie season
2007 DE Dan Bazuin Knee injury ended his career
2007 DE Michael Okwo Waived after injuries
2007 S Kevin Payne Lost starting job this summer
2007 DB Corey Graham Plummeted to bottom of depth chart
2007 CB Trumaine McBride Waived this summer
2008 DT Marcus Harrison Starting at nose tackle
2008 S Craig Steltz Reserve
2008 CB Zack Bowman Starting
2008 DE Ervin Baldwin Waived
2008 LB Joey LaRocque Waived
2009 DL Jarron Gilbert Inactive most of this season
2009 DE Henry Melton Injured reserve
2009 CB D.J. Moore Inactive for most of this season
2009 LB Marcus Freeman Waived
2009 S Al Afalava Starting

Quite simply, you can’t have a dominating defense without at least a few dominating players. At this point, the Bears have two semi-elite players in Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman.

No interior disruption

Last week, NFL Network offered a replay of the Bears’ legendary 2006 victory at Arizona. Among many other twists and turns, the game was notable for middle linebacker Brian Urlacher’s 25-tackle performance.

We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of Urlacher’s season-ending wrist injury this year. More than anything, however, I’m reminded of Urlacher’s postgame interview that evening. Urlacher essentially acknowledged he went unblocked most of the night. The interior duo of Harris and Tank Johnson kept Urlacher clean throughout.

You see none of that while watching the Bears’ defense these days. All three linebackers are regularly fighting off blocks. Neither Harrison nor Anthony Adams approaches Johnson’s ability to absorb blockers. And Harris rarely makes a play in the backfield, let alone affects the outcome of the game.

To realize how a defensive tackle can change a game, you only have to think back to the Bears’ 2006 victory at Minnesota. Harris sliced through the Vikings’ offensive line to force a fourth-quarter fumbled exchange between quarterback Brad Johnson and tailback Chester Taylor. The Bears recovered, and Rex Grossman soon hit Rashied Davis for a go-ahead and, ultimately, winning touchdown pass.

Interior disruption is a hallmark of dominating defenses. The Bears haven’t had that in awhile. According to their official statistics, their defensive tackles have combined for seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage. That’s less than one per game.

I’m sure we could come up with other factors, causes and effects of the Bears’ defensive decline. The trio above are what came to my mind. Feel free to add your ideas to the comments section below.

Bears defense: 2006-09
  2006 2007 2008 2009
  No. Rank No. Rank No. Rank No. Rank
Yards per game 289.1 5 354.7 28 334.7 21 326.0 15
Points per game 15.9 3 21.8 17 21.9 T-16 23.9 22
Rushing yards per game 99.4 6 122.9 24 93.5 5 119.5 21
Passing yards per game 194.8 11 231.8 27 241.2 30 206.5 12
Third-down pct. 31 2 33 2 35 5 42.0 25
Sacks 40 T-8 41 6 28 22 16 23
Ints. 24 2 16 17 22 T-3 8 T-10
Forced fumbles 20 1 17 4 10 16 6 10
 
  AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
  The arrival of quarterback Jay Cutler has stoked the enthusiasm of Bears fans.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- One night this week, a twin-engine plane flew over this college town an hour south of Chicago. As about 10,000 people watched, a skydiver jumped from the plane and began floating to the ground. Orange smoke billowed from a hand-held canister.

Camp Confidential: NFC North
Vikings: Sun., Aug. 2
Packers: Sun., Aug. 9
Bears: Thurs., Aug. 13
Lions: Fri., Aug. 21
Training camp index

Ooooohs were followed by ahhhhhhhs. The circus continued.

It's been that kind of training camp for the Chicago Bears, who aren't trying to suppress the lofty expectations generated by the acquisition of quarterback Jay Cutler. Players and coaches have embraced record-setting crowds who have arrived -- mostly by car, not from the sky -- to watch practice at Olivet Nazarene University,

"The support has been absolutely tremendous from day one," Cutler said early in camp. "We've just got to go out and win games now."

Coach Lovie Smith scheduled a physical camp, putting players in full pads for nine consecutive days at one point. But nothing has wiped away the near-giddiness players and coaches are carrying themselves with. After going 9-7 with quarterbacks Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman last season, the Bears can only imagine what they can do with Cutler behind center.

Fantasy Football: 32 Questions
AJ Mass discusses which player will benefit most from Jay Cutler's presence in the Bears huddle in 2009. Story

Just the other day, Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs stopped among a group of reporters and playfully chided them for ignoring him amid all of the excitement.

"You guys know I'm still on the team, right?" Briggs said. "I mean, I'm going to have to do a dance for you guys or something."

The Bears have been dancing all summer long.

Key questions

1. Who is Cutler throwing to?
It's plainly evident that tight end Greg Olsen is already Cutler's favorite receiver. The two have a clear connection both on and off the field, and offensive coordinator Ron Turner has spent the offseason working on ways to maximize Olsen's size and speed.

 
  Jerry Lai/US Presswire
  Tight end Greg Olsen has emerged as Jay Cutler's favorite target early on.

The unspoken reality is that none of the Bears' wide receivers are close to Olsen's level right now. Devin Hester and Rashied Davis are the team's only receivers who have caught more than seven passes in their NFL careers. But Davis appears to be no better than No. 4 on the depth chart and might not make the team.

Earl Bennett went his entire rookie season without a catch, but he has maintained his grip on a starting job this summer by displaying reliable hands and a thorough understanding of the offense. His relationship with Cutler -- they were college teammates at Vanderbilt -- doesn't hurt, either.

But an otherwise green class of rookies has left Cutler talking up a pair of nomads as possible depth at this position. Brandon Rideau (6-foot-3) and Devin Aromashodu (6-foot-2) are two big targets who have looked decent while hauling in Cutler's pinpoint passes. If the season started today, it appears Rideau would be the Bears' No. 3 receiver.

Draft choices Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox appear to be buried deep on the depth chart, as would be expected for rookie receivers.

2. What's the deal with Tommie Harris?

The mystery surrounding the Bears' best defensive lineman has extended from spring into summer, and after two weeks of training camp
it's still not clear how much Harris can be counted on this season.

  Harris

Smith said at the beginning of camp that Harris was completely healthy, but in truth Harris has been limited throughout the summer and acknowledged this week that he had surgery on his left knee in March. Smith now admits Harris has soreness but said there hasn't been a setback in his health.

At the very least, it appears the Bears are heavily protecting Harris from summer wear and tear. At worst, they are waiting for his knee to improve before they let him engage in extended full contact. In either event, it's the continuation of a 20-month odyssey for Harris' left knee, one that for now has left him a near nonfactor.

It's an especially sensitive issue for the Bears, who need Harris' interior disruption in order to meet their goals as a defense. His primary replacement this summer has been Israel Idonije, but Idonije is best suited as a swing backup. After losing 40 pounds this offseason, Idonije now weighs 266 pounds and doesn't have the build to stand up as a full-time defensive tackle.

3. Can the defense rebound from a down year?
If nothing else, Bears defensive players seem pretty happy this summer. Perhaps it was knowing that Cutler's arrival has taken some intense pressure off their shoulders. If all goes according to plan, the Bears defense can shed its self-inflicted expectations that it must shut out every opponent to compensate for an inconsistent offense.

But the Bears still have defensive questions as camp approaches its conclusion, including Harris and the safety position. They are giving Danieal Manning yet another opportunity to win a starting safety job, but cramping and hamstring issues have limited his practice time. Rookie Al Afalava has gotten some work with the first team, but that might be more by default than by merit.

Don't express those sentiments to Briggs, however. He and middle linebacker Brian Urlacher have been walking with a bounce in their step all summer. With Smith taking over as the de facto defensive coordinator, the tensions of 2008 seem to have evaporated.

"We don't have a weak point," Briggs said. "You can study us and find where our weak point is. You might say safety, but it's not really our safeties. Our weak point is our linebackers."

Briggs spit out that final sentence with a giggle, reflecting the overt confidence the Bears have that their defense can resurrect its mid-2000s dominance.

"I don't want to say we have a renewed confidence," Briggs said "But everyone is working so hard right now."

Market watch
Injuries have left the Bears secondary in flux for most of the summer. But the early camp flash of cornerback Zack Bowman -- and the sluggish return of veteran Nate Vasher -- has raised some interesting possibilities. Namely: Could Bowman win a starting job? And would that mean the end of Vasher's tenure in Chicago?

Bowman was an interception machine early in camp before being sidelined by a strained hamstring. He won't play in Saturday night's preseason opener at Buffalo, but there is plenty of time for him to get healthy and work his way back to the first team. In that scenario, the Bears might well make Bowman and Charles Tillman their starting cornerbacks -- assuming Tillman returns on schedule from back surgery.

It's unclear if the Bears would pay Vasher his $2.9 million base salary to serve as a nickel or dime back this season, especially considering his middling performance thus far in camp. Vasher said this week that he is "ready to go out and have one of the best years I've had," but not everyone in Bears camp agrees.

 
  AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
  A healthy Orlando Pace could make a huge difference for the Bears offense.

Newcomer to watch
The acquisition of Cutler was the NFL's most significant offseason move, and I'm pretty sure you're well aware of his potential impact. So for this feature, we'll focus on a player the Bears signed on the same day they traded for Cutler: Left tackle Orlando Pace.

If he's healthy, Pace will protect Cutler's blind side as well as any left tackle in the game. He'll also serve as an anchor for a line that appears bigger and more athletic this season. The Bears are much better with Pace at left tackle and Chris Williams on the right side than with Williams at left tackle and Kevin Shaffer or another veteran on the right.

It was interesting to watch Pace put on a clinic during one-on-one pass drills this week. When he's moving well, Pace simply engulfs his opponent. From a physical standpoint, Pace is sore but otherwise healthy after missing 25 games the past three seasons. His continued health will be a significant factor for the Bears offense.

Observation deck
The Bears are saying Tillman should recover in time for the Sept. 13 regular-season opener at Green Bay. All I can tell you is what I saw this week. Namely: Tillman walking around the perimeter of the practice field for conditioning. Tillman's pace was pretty slow for a player who would be exactly a month away from what is his first game. Stay tuned. ... The Bears appear committed to second-year quarterback Caleb Hanie as Cutler's backup. Hanie has rotated on the second team with Brett Basanez, but it's clear whom Smith prefers. "We liked everything we saw from Caleb last year," Smith said. "He's in a pretty good position to be behind a guy like Jay Cutler." ... Defensive end Mark Anderson, who had 12 sacks as a rookie in 2006 but only six in two ensuing seasons, is trying to r
esurrect his career under new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. Coaches rewarded Anderson by making him a co-first team defensive end on their first depth chart. "Whatever [Marinelli] says to do, I do," Anderson said. "He's the best out there and I enjoy working with him. For me, everything is looking to the upside right now." ... Cutler's maturity level will be closely monitored after his bitter departure from Denver. From that perspective, it was interesting to hear him say that he expects to have influence over the makeup of his receiving corps. "I think they're definitely going to ask me," Cutler said. "If they don't ask me, I'm going to tell them what I think because I've got to be the one throwing to them on game day and I've got to trust them." ... During a team drill Tuesday night, Smith called defensive plays to defensive coordinator/linebackers Bob Babich, who radioed them in to Urlacher. .. The Bears have a competitive situation at strongside linebacker between Pisa Tinoisamoa, Nick Roach and Jamar Williams. Tinoisamoa is expected to win the job in base sets, but it's possible all three players will see action. "It's a good competition," Briggs said. "You're vying for a starting job in the best linebacking crew in the NFL. Whoever wins the job, [it will] probably be well deserved."

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs was in a jovial mood when he stopped to chat with a group of reporters Wednesday. In between one-liners, Briggs provided some insight into the state of the Bears defense. The highlights:

 Briggs

Everyone has been talking about the job new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli is doing. How does the defensive line look to you?

Lance Briggs: They're getting after it so well right now. It just brings a smile to everyone's face. Because we know that everything starts up front. If our defensive line is getting after it like they've been getting after it all summer, then it opens things up for everybody else.

Brian Urlacher has been one of the game's best linebackers but he has slipped in the past few years. Which guy are we going to see this year?

LB: What guy do you want? Tell me what guy you want, and I'll tell you what you're going to get.

The guy who was playing at Pro Bowl level.

LB: That's what you're going to get.

What is it like having Bob Babich back as your linebackers coach?

LB [laughing]: It's rough. It's rough. Bob's good. Bob's very detailed. It's kind of like having your old uncle back, one that's finally left the house and you're like, 'Yes!' And he comes back and you're like, '[darn!]'

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

It would be a real surprise if new Chicago linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa doesn't win the starting outside job formerly held by Nick Roach and Hunter Hillenmeyer.

Tinoisamoa signed a one-year contract, which probably means there is some doubt around the league about what type of defense best suits his skills. If there is one, it's probably the Bears' version of the "Tampa 2." Consider that Tinoisamoa's best season came as a rookie in 2003, when a man named Lovie Smith was his defensive coordinator and Bob Babich was the linebackers coach.

Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times suggests Tinoisamoa will ultimately settle into a role as a starter who comes out in nickel situations, and that sounds about right. When the Bears go to nickel, you figure their best bets will still be Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs.

But overall, Tinoisamoa should upgrade the Bears' defense on first and second downs.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

So you think Chicago coach Lovie Smith might be overextending himself by taking over the Bears' defensive playing? You might want to check out what happened Tuesday in Dallas, where owner Jerry Jones confirmed that coach Wade Phillips would serve as his own defensive coordinator in 2009.

I've been told that things always get done bigger in Texas, and true to form, the Cowboys' move is a step beyond what Smith plans. Because Jones isn't replacing the fired Brian Stewart, Phillips will call the defensive signals and presumably be responsible for conceiving and implementing the defensive gameplan.

That's more than what Smith has laid out for himself. Smith has said he will call most of the defensive signals on game day and has assigned defensive coordinator Bob Babich to coach linebackers. But Babich also retained his title and will have some say in day-to-day management of the defense. Assistant head coach/defensive line coach Rod Marinelli will also have a level of authority.

(There have also been indications in Seattle that coach Jim Mora will handle a large portion of the defensive play-calling.) 

I suspect that people who follow and write about the Cowboys will see this move as a subtle shift toward offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, and the politics of the situation make it almost apples and oranges in comparison to the Bears. But, as the season approaches, it'll be interesting to note that Smith is not the only head coach to have taken on additional defensive duties.

Hot stove: Chicago Bears

January, 23, 2009
1/23/09
10:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Let's continue our early look at the NFC North offseason with this season's second-place team.

Chicago Bears offseason analysis

  • 2008 record: 9-7
  • Coaching changes: Hired Rod Marinelli to replace defensive line coach Brick Haley. Put defensive coordinator Bob Babich in charge of linebackers, replacing Lloyd Lee. (Babich won't call defensive signals.) Replaced defensive backs coach Steve Wilks with Jon Hoke.
  • Salary-cap space: $17.4 million before end-of-year credits and adjustments.
  • Restricted free agents: None of note.
  • Unrestricted free agents: Safety Mike Brown, quarterback Rex Grossman, running back Kevin Jones, wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, safety Brandon McGowan, offensive lineman Fred Miller, offensive lineman John St. Clair.
  • Draft highlight: The Bears have the No. 18 overall selection.
  • Free-agency comment: It seems unlikely the Bears will bring back Brown or Grossman. Jones was nearly a nonfactor and reduced to special-teams work. Lloyd's fade in the second half of the season suggests the Bears won't be eager to bring him back.
  • Three biggest needs: (1) Playmaking receiver to draw coverage away from Devin Hester. (2) A coverage-oriented safety to replace Brown and protect Kevin Payne. (3) A trusted running back to take some burden off starter Matt Forte. (Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times wonders if holdover Garrett Wolfe might get that chance.)
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Minnesota special-teams coordinator Paul Ferraro has officially left the Vikings and joined St. Louis, according to Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune. But he's not leaving to be the Rams' special-teams coach.

Ferraro will be the Rams' linebackers coach under new head coach Steve Spagnuolo, a college teammate and longtime friend. The move actually puts Ferraro in a position more commensurate with his expertise. Prior to joining the Vikings in 2006, Ferraro had spent only one season as a special-teams coach at any level. For most of his career, he had been a college-level defensive coach.

The Vikings did some good things on special teams in 2008 but ultimately will be remembered for giving up an NFL-record seven touchdowns. Assistant special-teams coach Brian Murphy is one candidate to take over the group.

Thursday's news extends a tumultuous run of turnover for NFC North coordinators. Nearly half of the 12 men who finished the 2008 season as an offensive, defensive or special-teams coordinator are no longer in the same job. Here's the tally:

Fired outright

  • Detroit defensive coordinator Joe Barry
  • Green Bay defensive coordinator Bob Sanders

Resigned

  • Minnesota special-teams coordinator Paul Ferraro

Retired

  • Green Bay special-teams coordinator Mike Stock

Demoted

  • Chicago defensive coordinator Bob Babich*
  • Detroit offensive coordinator Jim Colletto+

Under review

  • Detroit special-teams coordinator Stan Kwan

* Retained his title but will also coach linebackers and won't call defensive signals during games.
+ Reassigned to offensive line coach.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier made some oblique references Monday when asked about his experience interviewing for Detroit's head coaching job. You don't have to read too far between the lines to surmise that Frazier thought the Lions were much further away from competing than the Lions' front office does.

Here's what Frazier said to the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News while attending the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.:

"I can tell you this, we had a difference of opinion in how we saw the current Lions and going forward. That was probably the biggest thing in my interview. We had a different perception. I'd rather not get into [the specifics]. But we had different perceptions of where to go and the length of time to get there. We were really far apart in that."

I suppose reasonable people can debate the state of the Lions' roster. But from the outside, this is one of the top fears of elevating team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew. By human nature, they are looking to salvage whatever they can from the work they have already put into the team rather than simply starting anew. Time will tell if that is the most prudent tack.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • A key quote from Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy on his decision to hire a new defensive staff: "I felt that a number of things that occurred in Year 1 showed up again in Year 3." Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal has the full story. I'll be posting an extended entry later Tuesday on McCarthy's defensive turnaround.
  • Lost in McCarthy's decision to hire new defensive and special teams coordinators was the firing of Packers strength and conditioning coordinator Rock Gullickson. According to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, McCarthy didn't believe that players were making enough strides in their physical development.
  • Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times spoke Monday with Bears defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Bob Babich, who will no longer call the team's defensive signals. Said Babich: "The Bears have great fans, and it was a disappointing season for us. I understand if there is criticism toward me. As the defensive coordinator, anything that goes on with the defense starts with me. I was held accountable by myself. There isn't any criticism outside of what we do within the staff that affects me because there is no one who can be harder on me than I am on myself.''
  • Former Bears defensive backs coach Steve Wilks was formally hired in San Diego, writes Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune.
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy apparently has taken an in important step in re-assembling his coaching staff, selecting Shawn Slocum as his next special teams coordinator. Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has the story.

Slocum was the assistant to former special teams coordinator Mike Stock, who announced his retirement earlier this month. At least two other outside candidates interviewed: Kansas City special teams coach Mike Priefer and former San Francisco special teams coach Larry MacDuff.

Now McCarthy can turn his full attention to hiring a defensive coordinator. Tuesday, Jim Haslett became the third known candidate to interview for the job. Following the decision of Mike Nolan to join Denver and the apparent desire of Gregg Williams to return to Tennessee or go to New Orleans, Haslett might be the Packers' top candidate at this point. He is also a finalist for the St. Louis Rams' head coaching job.

Another possibility is Philadelphia defensive backs coach Sean McDermott.

Continuing around the NFC North:

  • Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Sun-Times believes Bears coach Lovie Smith is trying too hard to protect defensive coordinator Bob Babich. (Babich will retain his title while Smith will call the defensive signals.) Writes Mulligan: "Noble as his desire may be to cover up for his friend Babich, the loyalty he's showing one man is disloyal to all others in the organization. How did his bosses ever sign off on this idea? Are they looking to get rid of Smith?"
  • David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune supports Smith's decision to take a more active role in the defense: "In putting defensive play-calling back on the table for himself, Smith did what good leaders do. He played to his staff's strengths while removing any doubt or ambiguity as to whom should be held accountable if the defense fails."
  • During his Tuesday conference call, Smith also reiterated his support for Kyle Orton as the 2009 starter, according to Bob LeGere of the Daily Herald. Smith suggested that comments from general manager Jerry Angelo on the position were intended to address the need for a replacement to backup Rex Grossman, a pending free agent.
  • During a news conference with Detroit reporters, Miami assistant head coach/defensive backs Todd Bowles said he would follow a structure set by longtime mentor Bill Parcells if the Lions hire him as head coach. That includes a desire for the 3-4 defense. Nicholas J. Cotsonika of the Detroit Free Press has details.
  • Minnesota defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was in Los Angeles on Tuesday to continue interviews for the St. Louis head coaching job, according to Judd Zulgad of the Star Tribune. Frazier is scheduled to return to Detroit on Thursday for a second interview.

Lovie Smith takes the plunge

January, 13, 2009
1/13/09
6:10
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

With an aggressive and significant move, Chicago coach Lovie Smith has put himself on course for one of two positions in 2009:

Coach of the Year or unemployed.

Smith

That's the upshot of Smith's decision to essentially take over as the Bears' defensive coordinator, one of several changes he announced Tuesday in a teleconference with Chicago-area reporters.

And really, let's not get into the semantics of Bob Babich retaining the title of defensive coordinator. Smith said he will call most and perhaps all of the defensive signals while Babich will coach the Bears' linebackers. Unless I'm wrong, Babich will be the only defensive coordinator in the NFL who doesn't call the defensive plays. In the book of reality, that makes him a linebackers coach with a fancy title and a few extra meetings to attend.

(Update: According to NFC West guru Mike Sando, new Seattle coach Jim Mora is likely to call the defensive plays in 2009. Also, Dallas coach Wade Phillips took over some level of the Cowboys' defensive play-calling during the 2008 season, but the level of his involvement was never fully established.) 

By taking personal responsibility for the Bears' biggest area of need, Smith is either setting himself up for massive adulation if the defense improves or a potential dismissal if the gambit fails.

Smith would rightly deserve credit if he can personally restore the Bears' defensive advantage as part of an NFC North title in 2009. But if the defense does not make significant strides, or if the Bears slip in another area while Smith is tending to the defense, there will be no one left to blame. I suppose you could finger the assistant coaches responsible for the other areas, but ultimately it will come back on Smith for leaving them untended.

This move will be a referendum on Smith's ability as a defensive schemer and the manager of a football team. On the latter point, Smith has taken an unusual if not unprecedented tack to solve the Bears' defensive problems. There are multiple offensive-minded head coaches who call plays, but rarely do defensive-minded coaches follow suit.

(And, frankly, the practice of head coaches calling the offensive plays is trending downward. By the end of the 2008 season, only six were doing it. Game management has never been more important or time-consuming.)

In some ways, it's refreshing to see a head coach take accountability for a systemic downturn, especially one that occurs in his area of expertise. But you wonder how effective Smith can be as a head coach while also taking on such a substantive defensive role.

Here's how Smith addressed that issue with Chicago reporters:

"I'm a big boy, and after five years in this role, I think you find out exactly how much time you have and where you have time to do a few more things. This past year I coached the nickels for about half of the season and enjoyed that quite a bit. So I saw that I had a little bit more time to do some of these things. ... There are a lot of offensive coaches in the league that call plays, that do a little bit more on their side of the ball where their expertise is. For some reason, a lot of defensive coaches haven't done it. But I think it's time to change some of that."

I guess I could be overreacting to this news. It's possible these changes are more of a tweak than an overhaul.

After all, Smith went out of his way to point out that Babich "will continue to coordinate the defense." And Smith refused to be pinned down on the extent to which he will call plays. At one point, he said that "there are very few situations where one guy calls every play."

But ultimately, Smith acknowledged he will be in the "lead role" as it relates to the defensive signals. It's also worth noting the final three sentences from the long quote above, which indicate Smith wants to blaze a new trail for head coaches.

Most football people will tell you that calling defensive plays is far less, shall we say complicated, than calling the offensive plays. Nevertheless, Smith has placed the Bears' immediate future -- and his own career -- on his very confident shoulders.

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