By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — As he turned the corner into the home locker room, Bears cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc’s eyes went wide. There was a herd of reporters surrounding his stall — cameras, microphones and dread awaiting.
One of the bright spots in the Bears’ secondary this season, LeBlanc got beat by Pro Bowl receiver Jordy Nelson on a 60-yard bomb from Aaron Rodgers, setting up the game-winning Green Bay field goal as time expired in Chicago’s 30-27 loss at Soldier Field. It was the kind of Packers play we’ve become accustomed to, with the undrafted rookie left on an island without safety help over the top.
LeBlanc took his time buttoning up, gathering his thoughts and preparing to take responsibility. Afterward, the herd broke and LeBlanc was left alone in his thoughts. His head hung as teammates cleared. Bears general manager Ryan Pace came and put his arm around LeBlanc, as did 28-year team equipment manager Tony Medlin. Even a cameraman offered words of advice.
“Short-term memory,” LeBlanc tweeted hours later after taking the wrath of Twitter.
For all the physical tools of an NFL cornerback, the greatest asset available is just that — being able to move past a mistake. Playing in the secondary, mistakes prove to be costly. They’re noticed differently than a defensive end stunting the wrong direction.
In the case of LeBlanc, the Bears have to ensure he moves forward with the right frame of mind. The team sees his potential. Undrafted out of Central Florida, he impressed them while in a Patriots uniform for joint practices in August. He’s since been thrust into a key role and is tied for the lead in pass break-ups with nine. Then came this costly breakdown in coverage.
“You’re going to get beat,” Bears coach John Fox said. “If you haven’t been beat as a corner you haven’t played.
“Those things happen. When you’re in the arena like that and you get beat, it’s how you respond that’s critical and I think he’s a tough young man that will respond right.”
Perhaps LeBlanc could pan out as the Bears hope. They’re also looking to the potential of second-year cornerback Bryce Callahan and the recently signed Johnthan Banks, a second-round pick in 2013. As for 2014 first-round pick Kyle Fuller, the team has to decide by Wednesday whether to activate him from injured reserve. Those evaluations, which have been hampered by his knee injury, were to be essential for his future.
For now, the Bears are seeing what they have with trial by fire.
“They’re giving all they’ve got,” Fox said. “That’s all from my perspective you can ask.”
Pace began his work in revamping the Bears’ defense by building the front seven younger and better. Players like Pernell McPhee, Eddie Goldman, Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan, Jerrell Freeman and Leonard Floyd have stabilized that portion of the defense. Behind them, there are question marks.
The Bears can look toward the NFL Draft to upgrade the secondary. It’s a strong class of corners, with players like Marlon Humphrey, Quincy Wilson, Marshon Lattimore and Adoree’ Jackson all projected to the first round. The free agent class could also present options.
Then there’s the position of safety, which has been one of moving parts all season. Adrian Amos, Deon Bush and Harold Jones-Quartey have moved in and out of the two slots, with none of the three providing stability. Jones-Quartey has two interceptions in his pair of NFL seasons, which are two more than Amos and Bush.
Could Michigan Heisman candidate Jabrill Peppers be what the Bears want in the first round? Many view LSU safety Jamal Adams as a better player, while Ohio State’s Malik Hooker has garnered attention, too.
Should the Bears look to the free agent market, Eric Berry is the top safeties available.
Pace must enter this offseason with a detailed plan of attack. While the Bears evaluate the draft class, they must decide whether taking a quarterback with their top pick is imperative or if a defensive player is the priority. Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett and Alabama’s Jonathan Allen could be too good to pass up, but the Bears can draft a standout to upgrade their secondary and entire defense.
The Bears have their front seven mostly set with personnel. Filling their needs in the secondary is the priority.
On Sunday, it was LeBlanc answering for the Bears’ secondary. That wasn’t fair for an undrafted rookie who has impressed since arriving at Halas Hall. His future with the Bears could be bright.
What changes come for the secondary will define what the Bears’ defense can become.