Bears defense in dire need of playmakers to step up

Flip side to no picks for Jay Cutler is the Bears defense can't take the ball away

If you're going by his performance in training camp, there is no question Jay Cutler has cleaned up his act.

The NFL leader in turnovers in 2014 has not thrown an interception in team drills, making Bourbonnais a safe haven for the Bears offense. He was turnover-free in two series of the 27-10 exhibition-opening win Thursday night over over the Dolphins at Soldier Field, and there certainly could be something to what offensive coordinator Adam Gase and quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains are teaching.

That bodes well for the season when you consider that since joining the Bears in 2009, Cutler is third in the NFL with 93 interceptions. Only Eli Manning (111) and Drew Brees (95) have thrown more, but Manning has attempted 674 more passes and Brees 1,157 more. Cutler's 24 turnovers last season were one of the reasons Marc Trestman benched him in Week 16.

There's a flip side to Cutler's sudden security: The Bears have a defense that is not taking the ball away.

The defense didn't do much to slow the Dolphins in one series for the starters. Sure, it's a minuscule sample size, but it's also a reflection of where the unit is at with two practices remaining at Olivet Nazarene University.

The Dolphins drove 85 yards on 14 plays on the opening drive, and the defense still couldn't get off the field with the help of two Miami holding penalties. The Dolphins converted three third downs and went ahead 7-0 when Ryan Tannehill connected with Jarvis Landry on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. On the play, strong safety Brock Vereen was late adjusting after Landry came across the formation in motion. He took a poor angle and had no play on the ball. There was no play recognition.

Vereen has been running almost exclusively with the starters since camp opened. He's a young player the new regime and coaching staff don't know much about. The Bears must have a pretty good idea of what veteran Ryan Mundy can do, and rookie fifth-round pick Adrian Amos might have to gain experience first on special teams.

The Dolphins would have scored on the previous play had Tannehill not overthrown Greg Jennings with free safety Antrel Rolle slow to react. Add in a 27-yard gain by Lamar Miller when outside linebacker Pernell McPhee got greedy and dipped inside on a bend-back run and a 19-yard square-in to Jennings in front of cornerback Kyle Fuller, and the drive had a little bit of everything that ailed the Bears the last two seasons. Big plays. Inability to get off the field. Missed opportunities.

Yes, it was only one series and 17 snaps, including the three penalties, but if the Bears defense isn't picking off Cutler in August, how is it going to pick off Aaron Rodgers in September?

The first question you have to ask when taking a close look at the defense is who are the playmakers? If Fuller can recapture the nose for the ball he had at the start of last season, when he had two interceptions in Week 2 and another the following week, that will be ideal. A shutdown corner is a great building block for any top defense.

When defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said last week that he liked lineman Jeremiah Ratliff and was looking for others to step up, that said a lot. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman, a second-round pick, should turn into a fine player. But he's a rookie.

McPhee, the prize of the team's free-agent class, was a dynamic complementary player for the Ravens, a productive pass rusher after Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. He's being asked to be the man now. Inside linebacker Shea McClellin nearly had an interception but was watching Tannehill too long. Jared Allen, who started at outside linebacker, dropped a pass at point-blank range on a busted screen attempt.

Fangio is known for playing to the strength of his players, and the Bears, who were operating mostly in single-high-safety looks, will surely have more to unveil moving forward. But with so many positions up for grabs, the across-the-board competition means there are not enough established starters. It's a predicament they were going to be in whether they remained in a 4-3 or not.

It's a good thing Cutler isn't throwing picks no matter who he is going against,. Remember offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer complaining that defensive linemen were batting down passes in camp two summers ago to explain turnovers? There's no excuse-making now.

"You never know. Camp's camp," Cutler said Tuesday. "We're not getting hit. These aren't live bullets. So we'll see what happens when we start going."

bmbiggs@tribpub.com

Twitter @BradBiggs

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