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Bears must get in defensive state of mind to end playoff drought

Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
If the Bears are going to make the playoffs, Tommie Harris and Julius Peppers must lead a defensive resurgence.


BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- What's in a nickname?

In coach Lovie Smith's mind, the Bears' legendary moniker is significant and he is imploring his team to restore the tradition of the "Monsters of the Midway."

The nickname, which originated with the Bears' championship teams of the 1940's and returned to prominence with the 1985 squad, is deeply rooted in the team's glorious past where dominant defenses fueled title runs.

Smith knows first-hand the impact of a stellar defense after watching his team roll into Super Bowl XLI behind a stifling unit that led the league in takeaways and ranked third in points allowed.

Since that season, however, the defense has quickly fallen from the ranks of the elite. Smith, who has a 52-44 regular-season mark heading into his seventh year with the Bears, is hoping that a return to prominence will end talk of his job being in jeopardy.

With that thought in mind, Smith spent the offseason retooling the defense on all levels.

First, he promoted Rod Marinelli to coordinator after Smith served as his own defensive play-caller a season ago. Although Marinelli has never been a coordinator in the NFL, the fiery leader is regarded as an outstanding teacher and motivator with a wealth of experience in the Tampa 2 system that Smith prefers.

While he won't revamp the scheme, Marinelli will introduce some subtle changes that should result in better play. In addition, he is focused on developing a highly-conditioned defense that flies to the ball with reckless abandon. Turnovers often occur when multiple defenders put hits on runners, so Marinelli's emphasis on getting to the ball could help the Bears force more turnovers.

Although the installation of a new coordinator has created some of the optimism, it is the addition of several playmakers that has the defense poised to bounce back.

Julius Peppers signed a six-year deal worth $91.5 million to provide a dominant presence off the edge. He has posted 81 sacks in eight seasons and is one of the most disruptive ends in the game. While his detractors have criticized him for occasionally taking plays off, his ability to create negative plays is something the Bears desperately need.

The Bears will also benefit from the return of Brian Urlacher. The six-time Pro Bowler missed 15 games last season with a dislocated wrist. The void proved too much for the team to fill. As a fluid athlete with outstanding awareness, Urlacher has been a difference-maker, posting 37.5 sacks and 17 interceptions as a middle linebacker.

With Peppers and Urlacher spearheading a talented cast that includes Tommie Harris and Lance Briggs, the Bears have the personnel to field a defense similar to the units that helped Smith secure two NFC North titles during his tenure.

CAMP OBSERVATIONS

» Peppers has been the star of training camp and his presence has raised the level of his defensive teammates. The effort has quickly allowed him to become one of the defensive leaders despite a quiet demeanor. In speaking to several coaches about Peppers' impact, they were effusive in their praise for his professionalism, energy and work ethic. Peppers has been so impressive, he will likely be named one of the team captains.

» A healthy Urlacher has also been earning rave reviews. Smith believes the 11th-year pro is having the best training camp of his career. Urlacher is playing with a great sense of urgency and Smith has been impressed with his physicality during the first week of practice.

» Cornerback Zack Bowman is on the verge of becoming a household name. He created some buzz by picking off six balls a season ago, but has taken his game to a new level. Bowman is playing with a lot of confidence and his outstanding ball skills continue to impress his coaches. In fact, his level of play prompted the Bears to move him to left cornerback, the marquee position in the secondary, to give him a chance to generate more game-changing plays. After watching Bowman routinely blanket receivers during a controlled scrimmage, it is apparent he has the talent to be a Pro Bowler in the near future.

» Ignore the talk about the tight ends having a diminishing role in Mike Martz's offense. Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen were frequently targeted during seven-on-seven drills and "move the ball" periods. Although Martz's offenses in the past have featured a ton of three- and four-receiver sets, the Bears showed several double tight end formations with Olsen occupying one of the slot positions. With Olsen capable of creating mismatches against linebackers and nickel corners, his versatility will be utilized.

» Quarterback Jay Cutler looks like a perfect fit in Martz's system. The former Pro Bowler not only possesses the physical tools to succeed in the scheme, but has the fearlessness to make the blind throws that are inherently a part of the system. When watching him at camp, he routinely fired the ball before his receivers broke into open windows. Although the timing between passer and catcher must be synchronized in such a precise passing game, the quarterback must be able to anticipate in order to deliver an accurate ball on time. Some of Martz's previous quarterbacks struggled developing the trust in their receivers, but Cutler appears comfortable with the concepts and that could lead to a big year.

SURPRISE, SURPRISE

Frank Omiyale appears to have the inside track to the right tackle spot. He struggled in 12 starts at left guard last season. The team has opted to move him to tackle to provide some bulk and athleticism outside. He hasn't played right tackle since his sophomore year at Tennessee Tech, but is being counted on to fill one of the biggest roles on the offense. How well he fares could determine the fate of Martz's offense.

LASTING IMAGE

The Bears brought in Isaac Bruce to their training camp coaching staff to assist in the development of their young receiving corps. The recently retired wideout enjoyed monster years under Martz's guidance as the No. 1 receiver for the St. Louis Rams. Bruce is sharing his knowledge and wisdom by working with select receivers individually during the course of practice. In watching Bruce spend time with Johnny Knox, Rashied Davis and Devin Hester on "press" releases, it is obvious he has a gift for teaching the game. It would not surprise me to see Bruce become a top-flight position coach in the near future.

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