Two changes in the Bears' starting lineup on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers will be necessitated by injury.
Two more are part of coach Lovie Smith's plan to revamp the secondary, which ranked 30th in the league last season vs. the pass, and surrendered the game-winning 50-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to a wide open Greg Jennings last week at Green Bay.
Danieal Manning has been moved into the starting free safety position, a move Smith tried to make the week before training camp before Manning's pesky hamstring injury foiled those plans. But when Kevin Payne bit on a play fake by Rodgers and abandoned his spot in the deep post to let Jennings go uncontested after cornerback Nathan Vasher slipped, well, most figured something was coming. That's because change isn't really inevitable in the Bears' secondary as it is habitual. This marks the 18th change the Bears have made at free safety in Smith's tenure, a span of 82 games.
"I'm excited,'' Manning said. "It's a great opportunity. I'm quite sure they're going to throw deep a lot, especially me coming back from a hammy injury, they're going to try to go deep."
Manning is the most athletic of the defensive backs, and Smith believes the second-round pick from 2006 has made great strides since being moved into the nickel role last season. Manning has the best range of any safety, and is playing with more instincts now. He sacked Rodgers for a safety at Green Bay. Payne goes to the sideline and rookie sixth-round draft pick Al Afalava will remain the starter at strong safety. When he started last week at Green Bay, that marked the 15th change in starting strong safeties since 2004.
The Bears announced on Thursday that Zack Bowman would take over at cornerback for Vasher. Injuries will sideline middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and strong-side linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa. Hunter Hillenmeyer replaces Urlacher and Nick Roach is expected to start in Tinoisamoa's spot, however he will share reps with Jamar Williams. What happens in the nickel package remains to be seen. Payne could enter the game as the free safety and Manning could slide to nickel, or it could open the door for Corey Graham to get on the field as the nickel.
We've made plenty of references to the quarterback carousel with the Bears. The change has been even more rapid in the secondary with some of it due to injuries and other switches due to performance. The Bears have tried to go with mid- to late-round draft cases in many instances. Here is the safety shuffle and how the Bears have rotated starters:
Strong: Mike Green
Free: Mike Brown, Todd Johnson, R.W. McQuarters, Todd Johnson
Strong: Brown, Johnson, Green, Brandon McGowan
Free: Green, Chris Harris, Green, McGowan, Harris
Strong: Brown, Johnson, Harris
Free: Harris, Danieal Manning
Strong: Adam Archuleta, McGowan, Archuleta, McGowan
Free: Brown, Manning, McGowan, Manning
Strong: Kevin Payne, Brown, Payne
Free: Brown, Payne, Manning
Strong: Al Afalava
Free: Payne, Manning