LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman and players on the offensive side of the ball recognized a degree of saltiness this offseason from the defense throughout organized team activities and mandatory minicamp.
That's a positive sign, sure. It's also meaningless.
During a workout in training camp last August, tight end Martellus Bennett and cornerback Kelvin Hayden tangled in a skirmish eventually joined by several members of the defense. The defense was salty back then, yet finished with a sour, punch-drunk taste on its tongues at the conclusion of 2013 as it tumbled to the bottom of the NFL rankings in part, due to injuries, becoming the team's weakness after so many years of being its strength.
"We're practicing with an edge," Trestman said of the defense after Wednesday's workout inside the Walter Payton Center. "You can't play in the National Football League without being tough and having an edge and having a saltiness to your demeanor. We want to get to that point where we're consistently doing that. We're certainly seeing it from the offensive side. Our practices without pads are highly competitive. We're getting better. When Jermon Bushrod has to play against Jared Allen every day, and Jordan Mills has to play against Lamarr Houston every day, or Willie Young, that's pretty competitive. Then you've got [Jeremiah] Ratliff inside and the guys that are working inside. I think the mentality starts with how we sell it."
But no matter how that's peddled or packaged, it's for naught without results.
The Bears allowed the most points (478) last season in franchise history, the most total yards (6,313) and rushing yards as injuries cost the defense a combined 55 games last season, and that's not accounting for the unit losing defensive lineman Turk McBride to a ruptured Achilles and Sedrick Ellis, who made an impulse decision to retire before the start of training camp.
On the way to failing to prevent opponents from scoring fewer than 20 points all last season, the Bears relied on young and unheralded players such as David Bass, Jonathan Bostic, Khaseem Greene, Isaiah Frey and Landon Cohen to play significant roles as injuries took a toll.
At the conclusion of that disaster, Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker met with Trestman and general manager Phil Emery to determine how they could prevent a repeat of 2013.
"I laid out my vision for the group and what I thought needed to be done, and it was in line with what they thought as well," Tucker explained. "So it was just a matter at that point of putting the pieces together from a staff standpoint and from a player standpoint, and then going to work. They have confidence in me to get that done, so that's what we're doing."
It's also why Emery and Trestman made it a priority to provide Tucker what he needed to succeed. The Bears added Houston, Allen and Young in free agency to shore up the depleted defensive line, in addition to re-signing Jeremiah Ratliff and drafting Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson. On the back end, the Bears used a first-round pick on cornerback Kyle Fuller, re-signed Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, drafted safety Brock Vereen and signed three more safeties in Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray.
Understanding that the roster turnover would add several newer veterans and younger players, the Bears replaced linebackers coach Tim Tibesar and defensive line coaches Mike Phair and Michael Sinclair with Reggie Herring, Paul Pasqualoni and Clint Hurtt, all noted for their abilities as teachers.
"I've known coach Pasqualoni for a while and we've [done clinics] together and spent some time together talking football, so I really knew what he was all about. In terms of the front we want to play a certain way, we want to align a certain way, we want to use our hands a certain way, there's a certain way we want to play blocks to make sure we can control the line of scrimmage, and make the plays we need to make," Tucker explained.
"So that's important and we're on the same page there. Coach P[asqualoni], first and foremost is a great person, but he's a hard-nosed, tough guy, no-nonsense guy. Coach Herring is a guy I've seen coach over the years, and I know what he's all about. He has a tremendous amount of experience, and knows from being in a 4-3 and a 3-4, he knows how we want our backers to play, the technique and fundamentals and how we fit in the run game; how you have to play these zone schemes that we're seeing. You know the run game in the NFL right now is zone plays: inside and outside zones; hard zone, flat zone, and it's not just isos and powers. We have to understand, and we do understand that from a front seven standpoint, we've got to get our hands on guys, we've got to play blocks on the linebackers, we've got to be square, we've got to shuffle, mirror, fill and fall back, period; regardless of whether we're in Cover 2 or Cover 3 or whatever we're in. That's how we're going to play. So we understand that as a group and we coach them that way, and I think the players are responding to that."
That's apparent at recent practices, but we're also talking about workouts in shorts and helmets where contact is limited due to rules of the collective bargaining agreement. Still, Allen believes the defense will start to take shape quickly, and pointed out that offseason work such as minicamps provide an indication of what the fully-developed picture might be at the end of training camp.
"We don't have that much time. Once we get in training camp, when you get pads on within a week you're gonna understand if a guy's gonna fit into what we're trying to do. And then that's on the coach to put the right pieces together," Allen said. "I'm excited. It's just getting that energy. We have a good offense. I know what I expect from that offense because I've played against it. I expect them to put points up. So for me, it's getting the defense to match that. It's making guys understand that the time is now. We have an opportunity. When you play defense with a good offense, it makes it fun."
Saltiness, apparently, plays into that too if utilized correctly.
"These guys, they care about football. They want to be great," Trestman said. "They know to win in this league you've got to play with an edge. Salty helps as long as your fundamentals and techniques are right. Tough guys without system doesn't work very good. It all goes together. That's what makes great defenses. We think we've got the ability to do that and the right guys to do it. We'll see. We've got a lot of work to do."