BOURBONNAIS – Have you ever had that unpleasant dream when it’s the first day of school and you’re completely unprepared?
Chris Conte had that dream Friday, except it wasn’t a dream. The Bears’ third-year safety was waiting for a new pair of cleats to arrive when 7-on-7 drills started at a breakneck pace.
“It was early in practice,” Conte said after the Bears’ first training camp practice at Olivet Nazarene University. “I didn’t even have the right shoes on. My shoes weren’t tied. I didn’t have my gloves on.”
Seconds later, Conte stepped forward and intercepted Jay Cutler’s first pass of training camp.
“Untied shoes and no gloves,” grinned Conte, who was the first player praised by Marc Trestman after practice. “It’s just one of those things. The ball happened to land in the right place, and I got it.”
Imagine how good this defense could be once everyone’s shoes are tied.
So much about the Bears seemed new and unfamiliar when players took the field in shorts, shoulder pads and helmets for an early-morning practice beneath an overcast sky. Trestman and most of his assistants were new. The playbook was new. Even a chilly breeze in July felt new.
But there was the Bears' defense, flying around the field and taking the ball away like it was 2012. No hitting was allowed, but Conte picked off a deflected pass by Cutler to open the Bears’ passing drills, and veteran nickelback Kelvin Hayden notched his first interception when he stepped in front of a Cutler pass intended for Earl Bennett.
Bennett and his offensive teammates were forced to wait while Hayden raced toward the opposite goal line as part of the defense’s traditional victory sprint after every takeaway.
“Same old defense,” Bennett said. “They’re out here trying to strip balls, interceptions, takeaways.”
Trestman and his new-look offense will hog most of the training camp headlines, and rightfully so. But if the Bears are serious about improving upon a 10-win season and becoming a Super Bowl team, they will need the defense to be dominant once again.
In 2012, the Bears’ defense led the NFL with 44 takeaways while finishing No. 3 in fewest points allowed and No. 5 in fewest yards allowed. The Bears set a franchise record with nine defensive touchdowns, falling one score shy of the all-time record set by the 1998 Seattle Seahawks.
The architects of that defense – Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli – are long gone. So is Brian Urlacher, who served as a player-coach on the field.
This is Mel Tucker’s defense now. D.J. Williams and James Anderson have replaced Urlacher and Nick Roach at linebacker, while Lance Briggs is calling plays on defense for the first time since college.
Briggs took exception when a reporter suggested that the defense was tethered to Smith.
“Our defense was tethered to details,” Briggs said. “We’ve always been tethered to details no matter if it was under Tony Dungy or Lovie or Ron Rivera. That’s the one thing we’ll continue to do. It’s a defense that’s based on how we play, not necessarily what we’re playing.”
They’re playing really fast.
So far, they’re playing really well.
“Our practices are quick, they’re fast, the tempo is really quick,” Conte said. “I think it is going to make the games easier. We’re going to be in much better shape than we ever have been in.
“It will get us ready for teams like Philadelphia, if they come out and do hurry-up stuff. That seems like how the league is turning now, so we’ll be ready for it.”
Better double-knot those laces.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.