Bears banking on familiarity to boost solid defense
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By ANDREW SELIGMAN
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (AP) While the Chicago Bears gave their offense a makeover, their defense looks awfully familiar.
That's just the way they wanted it.
The Bears are banking on continuity to turn a top-10 defense into an elite unit and help a struggling franchise emerge as a contender.
"I think it's huge," cornerback Prince Amukamara said. "You look at all the great defenses the last couple of years - the 49ers, Seattle, Denver - you see a lot of those core pieces stick together and that's what we're trying to do here."
The Bears spent the offseason making sweeping changes on offense in an effort to get the most out of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and lift a team with four straight last-place finishes in the NFC North.
They hired coach Matt Nagy to replace the fired John Fox. They also gave their prized quarterback some new play-making options, signing former Pro Bowl receiver Allen Robinson from Jacksonville and Philadelphia tight end Trey Burton.
With the moves, the Bears believe they are positioning themselves to end this losing run. It doesn't hurt, either, to have a strong defense.
Chicago drafted a potential cornerstone player when it took Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith with the No. 8 overall pick. But the Bears largely maintained continuity despite the head coaching change.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio interviewed for that job and was free to go elsewhere with an expiring contract. But he chose to re-sign after Nagy was hired. That was a big relief to the Bears and their fans, considering the strides the defense made in his first three years.
That group has gone from ranking among the worst in franchise history to a top-10 unit last season. But the Bears still need a few more playmakers to emerge if they're going to become the modern day "Monsters of the Midway."
"I think we've need to go back out there and fix the little things that we did wrong last year and hopefully make it into the top five," defensive end Akiem Hicks said. "That was my goal going into OTAs and it's still my goal now."
Chicago's defense ranked 10th overall last season, seventh against the pass, ninth in scoring and 11th against the run. The Bears also tied for seventh in sacks despite injuries to several players, including linebacker Leonard Floyd.
But when it came to forcing turnovers, the results were mixed for Chicago. The Bears led the league with 14 fumble recoveries. But with eight interceptions, only two teams picked off fewer passes. That's something safety Eddie Jackson thinks will change in his second NFL season.
"We play to each other's strengths," he said. "We know each other's strengths and weaknesses coming into Year 2, so we play to our strengths. We can freestyle a lot of things. If Kyle (Fuller) sees something on film, and it shows up in the game, he'll come to me like, `Eddie, have me over the top, I'm going to break on this.' If Prince sees something like that, we can adjust to each other."
The Bears picked off a total of 24 passes in Fangio's first three years - a franchise-low eight each season. By comparison, San Francisco averaged 19.5 interceptions in his four seasons as coordinator and led the NFL with 23 in 2014.
"I think it's all about just making the plays that you can," Amukamara said. "We have a saying in the defense room, `You catch the balls that they throw to you.' You catch the ones they throw to you and you'll lead the league in interceptions. ... . I think it's just being opportunistic and just taking advantage of making those plays."
Amukamara broke up seven passes without an interception last season, his first in Chicago. But he comes into this season more familiar with the scheme and how offenses will try to attack it. And he thinks that will lead to more big plays for the defense.
"Just being in this defense you kind of know how an offense is going to attack us because we've been running the coverages so long. We kind of know what to expect beforehand."
Notes: Smith remains unsigned and missed his third practice. ... G Kyle Long was back practicing after a scheduled day off Saturday. ... LBs Danny Trevathan (hamstring), Aaron Lynch (hamstring) and Joel Iyiegbuniwe (shoulder) sat out, as did CB Sherrick McManis (hamstring) and TE Daniel Brown (ankle) did not participate.
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Updated July 22, 2018