By Adam Hoge-
HALAS HALL (CBS) — It can be an unforgiving position.
There are plenty of opportunities to make plays, but there are also plenty of times where you have to make up for someone else’s mistake.
And if you don’t. You’re the one who looks bad.
No one is making excuses for the way Bears safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte played against Washington Oct. 20. Both players took responsibility for their mistakes and admitted they could play better. Their coaches didn’t sugarcoat the performance and neither did general manager Phil Emery.
“They had a rough game, both of them, against Washington,” Emery said in an interview Thursday morning on 670 The Score.
But the GM was also quick to point out that one game does not make a season.
“That doesn’t mean they are going to have a rough season,” Emery said. “I know they are capable of doing very good things, they have done them in the past and we are looking forward to their improvement moving forward.”
Of course, that’s a kind way of saying both players must start playing better, which no one is denying.
But it also doesn’t mean that some of the criticism over the last week and a half hasn’t been over the top. The NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business and the latest product coming out of the Bears’ secondary hasn’t been very good.
Then again, the entire defense hasn’t looked good and that usually has a negative impact on the safeties — even if that is the one position group on the defense that has managed to stay (mostly) healthy.
“When you play the safety position, you have to do it all,” defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. “You fit in the run game and have to be in position in the pass game. But a lot of what we do, most of what we do, is not up to just one guy. It’s a team effort and sometimes a safety at the end of the day can be in a spot and maybe it looks like he hasn’t done his job, but it’s not necessarily the case.”
Linebacker Lance Briggs first hinted at that after the Giants game, admitting that the cornerbacks put the safeties in some tough spots.
In the Bears’ zone scheme, it’s easy to say a safety was late over the top, but it’s also on the cornerbacks to close the window underneath and make a receiver looked covered, even if he’s not.
There have also been plenty of missed tackles up front by defensive linemen and linebackers, which has left Wright and Conte on an island as the last line of defense. And to be honest, they’ve excelled in making open field tackles in the secondary, even if they’ve overpursued and missed some when running up towards the line of scrimmage.
“Both of these safeties throughout this season have tackled very well,” Emery told 670 The Score. “They had a number of really high quality tackles against the Bengals that helped us control their rushing game. They were critical in the Minnesota game, both Chris and Wright, in terms of making tackles to help stop Peterson. They both had key plays, tackles in space.”
Emery also pointed out the open field tackle Conte made on Jonathan Dwyer that resulted in a fine for the Steelers’ running back, as well as a number of big tackles the safeties made on Brandon Jacobs as he consistently got to the second level. Both Conte and Wright took a beating in that game, but then again, it can be an unforgiving position.
And there hasn’t been much forgiving from critics over the last two weeks after the safeties’ performance against Washington. That criticism is mostly just when talking about that one game, but calls for Conte and Wright to lose their jobs have been very premature when you consider the season as a whole.
“I think (the criticism) is unfair, but that’s just the nature of the game,” cornerback Tim Jennings said. “They are the last line of defense and lot of guys don’t know what’s going on out there … Anytime we have big plays on us like that, of course it’s going to look bad on our safeties, but it has to do with our interior.”
Which brings us to the non-existent pass rush that has plagued the Bears this season.
“No. 1, yes, consistency in the pass rush or a better rush will help all our of secondary people,” Emery said.
And that’s really where the Bears’ defense starts. Without getting home with four pass rushers, the Bears’ defense opens itself up to all sorts of issues that have been exposed this season. Another way of saying that would be to say that it also exposes a number of truths in the defense.
One of those truths is that Chris Conte and Major Wright are probably not perennial Pro Bowlers.
But they’re also not as bad as they played in Washington.
Combined, Conte and Wright have 65 starts under their belts, most of which have come together. And there’s a lot more evidence pointing to them being capable safeties in this defense than there is indicating that they should be replaced.
But given all the breakdowns on defense this season — and the pressure it has put on the safeties — even the GM has to remind himself of that.
“You know, I have to take a look back in terms of being consistent in evaluation and not putting too much on the last game or the last two games,” Emery said.
Unfortunately, given the injuries, it won’t be getting any easier for Wright and Conte. They can’t afford to make mistakes.
No one play better exemplifies that than the 45-yard touchdown pass Robert Griffin III threw to Aldrick Robinson in Washington. Both Conte and cornerback Charles Tillman were in position to not only prevent the touchdown, but also intercept the pass. Unfortunately, Conte lost his positioning when he located the football in the air, ran into Robinson and fell down.
In most years, Tillman would have still made a play on the ball despite Conte’s misstep, but the cornerback is nursing a knee injury and it buckled when he planted to make a play on the ball.
It was one of a number of missed opportunities for Conte on the day, but it was also an instance of the defense breaking down on multiple levels (Griffin had plenty of time to make the deep throw) leaving the safety to take the brunt of the criticism.
“It’s a team game,” Conte said. “I mean, we got to make plays. Whatever criticism people have you take it with a grain of salt. We just have to worry about what we’re doing.”
But that doesn’t mean that some of the criticism isn’t unfair.
“Sometimes it is, but it’s the game,” Wright said. “We know that. But we know what we got and we know what’s at stake for us. At the end of the day, it’s our job to get everybody down.”
That job has been especially hard this season. And it won’t get any easier.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.