The biggest moves the Bears made on defense, or at least the ones getting the most attention, were the changes on the coaching staff. Rod Marinelli's addition as the defensive line coach will create some storylines during training camp, and I think a lot of people are interested to watch the drill work he does with his players on the side. Lovie Smith's role as play caller will come more into focus when the season begins.
But we bounced the two biggest personnel changes on defense off Bill Barnwell when we spoke to the managing editor of Football Outsiders about the upcoming season. Their mean projection gives the Bears a 49 percent chance to have 11 or more victories, and that was the highest figure for any NFC club. It can all be found in the Football Outsiders Almanac, which will be available on Amazon.com in a few weeks and can be ordered in PDF format from their Web site.
First, we asked Barnwell about the addition of linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, who is projected to be the starter on the strong side after signing a one-year contract. St. Louis cut the veteran loose after the Rams failed in their bid to trade him. He became the first rookie in Rams' franchise history to lead the defense in tackles when he played the position for Smith and Bob Babich in 2003.
"It really depends on Tinoisamoa and how he fits into their scheme and how quickly he catches up on things,'' Barnwell said. "I understand he's had experience in the system in the past. He was playing for the Rams. The Rams didn't have a great defense last season. You look at his run numbers and they were atrocious. He made a lot of tackles but they were seven or eight yards from the line of scrimmage, they were coming well down the field. The defense wasn't good and his numbers were not very good. You have to put the scheme in context. It's not like baseball where if a guy is going to hit 40 home runs in one city he's going to hit 40 home runs in another city. He could be better this season.''
What Football Outsiders does is study each play and they look at a statistic they call the "stop rate" and average yards for running plays when the linebacker was credited with making the tackle. It's not a perfect system but they have other stats, one of which is called "defeats," defined as the total number of plays they stop the offense from gaining first down on third or fourth down, or make a play behind the line of scrimmage or create a turnover.
Tinoisamoa, who played weak side in St. Louis last season, was credited with 48 stops, 32 fewer than Lance Briggs. Tinoisamoa ranked 93rd out of 99 total linebackers vs. the run. But as Barnwell pointed out, these statistics are drawing from small sample sizes and they can change from year to year. Switch teams and defenses and it is not going to be the same. Tinoisamoa will have more talent around him this season and it's reasonable to expect he'll be a different player. Of course, the Bears thought Adam Archuleta was coming to a more talented defense when he left Washington for the Bears. That didn't work out so well for Archuleta or the Bears.
*** Next, I asked Barnwell about the performance of Mike Brown, who departed via free agency after his contract expired. Brown started 15 games last season and had his highest tackle total since 2002. He's moved on to the Kansas City Chiefs where he could very well win the starting strong safety job in training camp.
"I think he was better than what they had in years past,'' Barnwell said. "It's a lot like Brian Dawkins where he's not the player he was before but having a guy who knows the scheme and is a pretty sure tackler, that was the biggest thing he was contributing to the Bears last season."
According to Football Outsiders, the Bears' defense was No. 1 in the league in yards after the catch (3.9), and he credits Brown for much of that saying he was in the right place to prevent the Bears from giving up the deep ball. If he just could have found a way to stop the 115 slant passes the Bears gave up combined vs. Tampa Bay and Tennessee.
"While the Tampa-2 is designed to limit big plays, losing Brown might open up the Bears to a few more of them in 2009,'' Barnwell wrote.
If you were to judge things with how the offseason program ended, Craig Steltz looks to have the edge in the battle to become the free safety. The Bears think he's got the smarts and savvy to be in good position most of the time. If he can accomplish that, perhaps he can hold that job down.
*** Switching gears quickly to some nuggets we found on the Web. Don Banks of SI.com lists his top five storylines for all eight divisions, and this isn't new, it came out a week ago. He says the NFC North has the most sizzling stories from top to bottom, ranking it first. That's a good indication you'll see plenty of national media attention in Bourbonnais when training camp opens. Here are his five stories, and it doesn't come as a surprise what is No. 1:
1. Stop me if you've heard this one before: Brett Favre will try to get a ring and a little revenge at the same time. In Minnesota, no less. 2. Cutler gives Chicago a top-notch quarterback for the first time since Sid Luckman retired. 3. Will the Lions ever win another game? It's 17 losses and counting in Detroit, meaning rookie head coach Jim Schwartz can go 1-15 and claim first-year success. 4. Rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford will start for Detroit this season. The question is: How soon will the Lions throw their No. 1 pick to the, uh ... rest of the league? 5. Once Favre becomes a Viking, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers will be the division's longest-tenured starting quarterback, in terms of continuous service with one team. You can look it up.
How about that? A storyline for each of the division's four quarterbacks.
*** One of the defenses you hear about the Bears' receiving corps is that it will not just be the wide receivers, that Cutler will take full advantage of a couple of pretty good pass-catching tight ends in Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark. Factor them into the equation and the Bears should be fine. Well, Adrian Hasenmayer at FoxSports.com breaks down all 32 teams and ranks their wide receiver and tight end packages giving a comprehensive look.
Where do the Bears come in? Try 27th. They rank just ahead of Oakland, St. Louis, Jacksonville, Miami and the Plaxico Burress-less New York Giants.
"The Bears expect much better production from their WR/TE group this season, for no other reason than adding QB Jay Cutler. And they're right, to a point. But they still are banking on a lot of unknowns and youth. The team continues trying to convince everyone that kick return star Devin Hester is ready to be the No. 1 receiver in town and upgrade from his career-high 51 catches last season. But Chicago's current Nos. 2-4 guys combined for as many catches and your un-esteemed author -- nada, zilch, zippo. Still, some of the young kids have promise -- but promise alone is not enough, and why even Jay Cutler has admitted he's up for the Bears trading for his former teammate Brandon Marshall. The real star could be tight end Greg Olsen, who could upgrade from the 50-catch range to the 70 or 80 neighborhood with Cutler aboard."