LAKE FOREST – At the end of his interview Wednesday, Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker stepped off of a small platform in the media room and wiped his forehead.
“Those lights get a little bit hot up there,” Tucker said with a smile, alluding to a bank of bright lights that hang from the ceiling.
Think it’s hot now?
Wait until this weekend at Soldier Field, when Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford drops back in the pocket and looks for freak-of-nature teammate Calvin Johnson sprinting down the field.
All of a sudden, those beads of sweat forming on Tucker’s brow might turn into water balloons, minus the balloons.
Life is swell right now for the Bears, who are renting a spot on First Place Drive after nine weeks of the regular season. The neighborhood is crowded these days with the Lions and Green Bay Packers, but the Bears believe that they could have staying power if their injured starters return to form.
Maybe they’re right. I have no idea. We all know predicting the NFL standings at the end of the season is about as much of a science as picking a square in your annual Super Bowl pool.
But this I can say with confidence: The Bears need more from their starting safeties.
A lot more.
Like, more-than-the-national-debt more.
Because, as the season is marching forward, Chris Conte and Major Wright are stumbling backward. Their next test will be one of the toughest of the season as they face a high-caliber offense led by Stafford, Johnson and Reggie Bush, who helped drop 40 points on the Bears in late September.
Forty is a big number, but it’s not nearly as big as 329, which is how many receiving yards Johnson tallied in his most recent game against the Dallas Cowboys. Johnson has been the NFL’s No. 1 receiver for a while, but his record-setting performance stunned everyone, including his teammates.
“You know what? Throughout the game, I didn’t know,” Bush told Bears reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “It was kind of a quiet 329 yards. It felt like, throughout the game, obviously he was catching some deep balls, but it didn’t feel like a 329-yard game.
“After the game was over and they said what he had, I was like, ‘[Darn], really?’ It didn’t seem like that at all. I was actually pretty surprised.”
Surprise, surprise: Johnson wants to take the top off of the Bears’ defense, too.
That brings us back to Conte and Wright, who continue to take too many bad angles and miss tackles, and Tucker, who is charged with helping his third- and fourth-year players improve. If either player were to be benched, the Bears’ best option would be Craig Steltz, who has great hair and sounds like a character from “The Waterboy,” but has started only seven games in six NFL seasons.
No wonder Tucker faced a few questions about his starting safeties under those hot, bright lights.
How would he assess the safety duo after the Bears’ win against the Packers?
“Well, we just want to see those guys continue to play fast, play with confidence, be where they’re supposed to be, and make the plays that are there for them to make,” Tucker said. “And that’s all.
“Get better, that’s what we’re asking of all of our guys, is really just to focus on doing your job.”
Were the safeties doing their job? Were they making progress?
“I think we made progress in some areas,” Tucker said.
Then, he started rambling about the defense as a whole.
This was not a day for answers. This was a day for questions.
The answers will come Sunday against the Lions.
The safeties played ________.
The Bears ________ the game.
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tcmusick.