Mundy moves into Bears starting safety role

Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery, left, poses with safety Ryan Mundy and head coach Marc Trestman after Mundy was introduced as the newest member of the team during a news conference Wednesday, March 12, 2014, in Lake Forest, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

When the final huddle of minicamp broke, Ryan Mundy retreated to his locker, where his Bears pads lay on the floor in an unzipped bag.

The gray plastic glimmered a bit under the Halas Hall lights. It's been his since he signed a contract with the Bears, but after OTAs and minicamp without pads, it has yet to receive a Mundy scratch. Does the sixth-year safety feel an itch? 

“Right now? No,” he said. “Maybe in a few weeks.”

He’s referring to training camp, which will start July 25 in Bourbonnais. He’ll lace up with the pads tight on his frame, and he’ll finally show the team what he’d promised he’d bring with him from his days in Pittsburgh and New York. In a few weeks, Mundy will hit people.

But on Thursday, as he stuffed clothing into travel bags and readied to leave, Mundy stood contrary to the archaic view of NFL safeties. He’d just spent the final practice in shorts, where hitting wasn’t allowed. Instead, he performed drills in which he ran backward at a 45-degree angle until the quarterback threw the ball on an out pattern, which is the moment he’d break on the route for an interception.

Hitting might not be everything for an NFL safety, but timing is, and the start of a five-week vacation before minicamp is Mundy’s time to move. He’d spend the next day and a half stuffing more equipment into travel bags and boxes to transport to his first house in Chicago. The only thing separating his pads from the items he has yet to pack is that he knows exactly where those need to go.

This part is as important as any other. Mundy isn’t joining just any NFL defense. He's not moving to any old town to do it, either. He’s joining the Chicago Bears, a unit that struggled to stop anybody a year ago in a town where fourth-and-long is supposed to be both an opening and closing act.

“Anytime you think of the Chicago Bears, you think of toughness, particularly on defense,” Mundy said.

Toughness. It’s the sentiment that has echoed through the Halas Hall walls all week. Head coach Marc Trestman said it was particularly lacking last year, his first in Chicago, when the Bears went 8-8 and finished 30th in the league in defense.

In no game was it more evident than the last, the one that mattered most, when on 4th-and-8, Aaron Rodgers dropped back and scrambled to his left before heaving the ball to the endzone. It felt like it soared forever until it fell into the arms of Randall Cobb for what would be the division-winning score.

Nobody was back there to cover Cobb. Chris Conte missed his assignment.

So the Bears went out and got Mundy, who switched off with Antrel Rolle at the two safety spots in New York last season. They also signed prized defensive ends Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston and drafted two players – cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Brock Vereen – who have been working with the first team throughout OTAs and minicamp.

It became painfully obvious how Rodgers’ final heave with a hurt collarbone gripped the organization during the offseason, when the Bears would go six months with it being the last memory of football they had. It’s why they have Mundy and the other defensive backs running so many interception drills. They need turnovers.

And in that sense, they’ll be asking Mundy to tweak a bit of who he is. In six seasons – only last year as a starter – Mundy has just two interceptions.

It’s a part of him he needs to add to the house.

“I came in here as an open book, as a sponge, learning how the Chicago Bears, Coach (Mel) Tucker, Coach (Jon) Hoke and (assistant) Chris Harris want me to play safety,” Mundy said.

But the Bears are looking for answers as well, ones they couldn’t find during last year’s forgettable defensive possessions. They used free agency to acquire established starters like Mundy, Allen and Houston in addition to what they added through the draft. Whereas some starters are rookies they’ll morph and shape into their model of a Bear defender, others they are trusting to bring their own brand of defensive instincts.

“You don’t have to reinvent yourself because obviously, I did something right to get here,” Mundy said. “They like something that I did before, so you have to hold onto that a little bit.”

Hoke admitted as much this week.

"You can tell he's played,” Hoke said. “He's a veteran, and he really doesn't get too panicked. He understands football, he's been playing a lot of pro football so it's been good from that standpoint."

What Mundy brings is the ability to use the pads, the ones that lay in the unzipped bag on the floor, to nail wide receivers as they go up for the ball. In Pittsburgh, the style earned him a $21,000 fine for a hit to the head of Darrius Heyward-Bey that sent the Oakland wideout out of the stadium on a stretcher.

It’s a warpath he learned in part through special teams, where he ranks third in the NFL in such tackles since 2009. In these early practices in Chicago, Mundy has played the outside contain lane on kickoffs and punts. It’s a part of him he’s not ready to sell.

“That’s my background," he said. "That’s how I made a name for myself in this league. That’s one of the reasons I’ve lasted so long. I don’t ever forget where I came from.”

Mundy hails from Pittsburgh, where in the city, he grew up playing safety and dreaming like all the other kids to one day play for the vaunted Steelers defense. When the 2008 NFL Draft came, Mundy got that chance. The Steelers took him in the sixth round. They later cut him, signed him to the practice squad and then signed him to a long-term deal to work with acclaimed safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. Mundy said he loved it.

But eventually he had to move from there, too. He came to New York, leaving the No. 1 defense for one ranked 31st, but one where he could start.

As he settles into his third NFL lockerroom and a defense looking to flip the page, Mundy introduces himself to teammates and residents who have lived in Chicago for years. He tells them about where he’s come from as well as where he’s moving to. Along the way, he reminds them that your past isn’t all you can be in this world.

“Look around this lockerroom,” Mundy said. “We’ve got guys like Jared Allen, Lance Briggs coming back, Charles Tillman. We have a lot of talent. Lamarr Houston. We’ve just got to go out there and do our jobs. We’ve taken enough criticism throughout the offseason and there’s a lot of question marks surrounding us, but the time will come when we have to go out there and prove it, and we’ll be ready for that.”

One player he didn’t mention heard him talking as he walked back from the shower. Martellus Bennett, the starting tight end who never resists the urge to jump in a circle, shouted his way.

“Tell them about how covering me everyday makes you better,” he said.

Laughter broke out around Mundy’s locker.

“It does make me better,” Mundy said back.

Mundy doesn’t forget things. Later, long after Bennett disappeared, Mundy voice picked up in speed and pitch as he looked forward to this season and all that this new Bears defense can be. In addition to striking the balance between the player he was and the one Chicago wants him to be, he’s set a goal for himself this season.

“I really want to be really good at covering tight ends this year,” he said. “I think that’ll be one of my focal points and one of my goals, to be one of the top safeties in the league in regards to man-to-man coverage on tight ends. I know I have the ability to do it.”

It’s a project he’ll tackle in a few different ways in training camp, but that’s five weeks away. In the meantime, he says he’ll continue to work out. He wants to shred a few pounds to drop from 220 to 213. He might take a vacation.

But for the most part, Mundy will be around. He’ll be breaking in his new house, finding the places to hang the pictures of his days in Pittsburgh and others for the Bears memorabilia that he’s accumulating day by day. He’ll set his pads aside and try to do something he admits is difficult. He’ll try to forget about them for a bit.

Timing is everything for safeties. The hitting will wait. Mundy knows that before he can fix the defense as a Chicago Bear, he has to work on becoming one.

“Any time you see an opportunity, you should take it,” Mundy said. “That’s why I’m here.”

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