Bears endure the safety squeeze

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- They emerge from their morning meetings in position groups, walking across campus and into lunch in small clumps, some smaller than others.

The members of the Bears' secondary looked like they could use a friend of two, Wednesday, not necessarily an unfamiliar feeling for players who describe their position as being alone on an island, but not a great situation nonetheless.

Of course, in the Bear-zarro world that passes for Bears training camp, all is well.

In the real world, it is very difficult to tell how the Bears' Cover 2 defense is not in real danger of being just as vulnerable as it was last season, when it ranked 22nd against the pass. And now, with promising rookie safety Major Wright coming off hand surgery, which at best will hinder his progress, Danieal Manning feels familiar pressure.

The positive way to look at Manning's career with the Bears is to say he's versatile, having played both safety spots, right corner and special teams in four seasons. But while the Bears have long lauded Manning's athletic ability, you wonder why he is back at strong safety today, a position for which he is not suited, only because their third-round draft choice is in a cast.

Of course, Manning is not alone as the Bears have changed the safety positions more than 40 times under Lovie Smith. But that doesn't make him any less dizzy.

"This is five years I've been going through it, so I don't think it's going to change," said the always affable 27-year-old from Corsicana, Texas, by way of Abilene Christian. "It's almost normal, so I just try to make the best of it."

Manning missed part of the team's offseason workouts, unhappy with the Bears' one-year tender offer, which he eventually accepted and will pay him $1.176 million this season. And while Bears fans are not likely to sympathize, you can't blame a guy for being confused.

Asked what he thinks his best position is, Manning replied honestly, "I really don't know. I just play them all. I've taken a liking to nickel, but now I'm at strong safety so I have to like that position now."

Manning, who ranks second among active players as a kick returner, missed Saturday's preseason opener with a minor hamstring injury. Josh Bullocks also did not dress while nursing a leg injury. Craig Steltz started at strong safety but left with a high-ankle sprain in the first quarter and is still wearing a walking boot. He was replaced by Wright, a physical player who flashed open-field tackling ability but left the game not long after with seven tackles and a broken left index finger.

On Wednesday, the Bears signed undrafted rookie free agent safety Aaron Webster, a possible sign that they don't have much faith in Steltz returning quickly.

Manning's agent, Russel Hicks, said his client is best in the box and closer to the action at strong safety, recalling his sack of Aaron Rodgers off the safety blitz in last season's opener against Green Bay.
He also praised the chemistry to Chris Harris and Manning, who started together in the Super Bowl. Harris, who missed some time early in camp with back strain, has the football smarts that Manning lacks but lacks Manning's speed, as he showed when he was late to help cornerback Zack Bowman, who was beaten on Philip Rivers' 28-yard touchdown pass to Legedu Naanee.

The Bears are counting on Julius Peppers providing enough pressure on quarterback to ease the burden on the secondary. But without adequate push up the middle -- read: Tommie Harris -- the Cover 2 can be a scary place for the secondary.

After Wright's strong start in camp, Bears coaches envisioned the rookie starting opposite Harris. Now, everything's up for grabs once again. And with Bowman and Charles Tillman's history of injuries, the cornerback position is further compromised by the lack of depth. Manning said he remembers his rookie season when anything seemed possible and can relate to Wright in that way.

"After that, though, things change," he said. "That's how my career has been. Things just change, so I just try to roll with it."

He insists it's OK. Bears fans have to hope the same can be said for the most vulnerable positions on the field.

"I'm a country boy. I'm just enjoying the moment, man, because a lot of guys don't get this opportunity and I'm happy," Manning said. "I get upset sometimes because I want to be good at anything they put me at, but it's just the way it is right now. That's the type of player I am and the type of player they want me to be. I just have to be able to adjust on the run.

"I just do what I'm told and do my best, and when they decide to move me somewhere else, that's what I do. "

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.