Jon Hoke isn’t big on excuse-making or cop-outs.
So when it comes to defending a secondary that was among the NFL’s worst last season, the Bears’ defensive backs coach won’t pin everything on a unit he admits didn’t do a very good job holding up its end of the bargain in 2013.
Yes, he acknowledges, there were injuries on the defensive line and in the linebacking corps that made the life tougher on the secondary. But just as quickly, Hoke says the position group he oversees didn’t make the necessary adjustments to soften the blow.
But rather than casting all of the blame onto a defensive backfield that cornerback Tim Jennings said lacked toughness and that “couldn’t stop nobody,” Hoke shouldered a lion’s share of the responsibility.
“We should have played better,” Hoke said during last month’s minicamp. “That falls on me as a coach – I take full responsibility for that. I wouldn’t put that on a player. I put that on me.
“When you play that bad, you’ve got to coach better.”
Hoke rewinds back to 2012 when the Bears established a new league record with six interceptions returned for touchdowns over the first seven weeks of the season before adding two more over the final nine games.
Now, two years removed, Hoke is focused on reshaping a unit that could include two new starters at safety with Ryan Mundy and Brock Vereen. Vereen spent the Bears organized team activity workouts and mandatory minicamp working with the first-team defense while Chris Conte continues to recover from off-season shoulder surgery.
Rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller could also have an early impact while providing valuable depth behind Jennings and Charles Tillman. But as solid as Vereen and Fuller were in the off-season, Hoke and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker warn that until they’re in pads, the Bears won’t know exactly what they’ve got.
Tillman has declared himself healthy after dealing with knee and groin issues last season, when he had three interceptions and forcing three fumbles before tearing his triceps on Nov. 10 – adding to the list of injuries that led to him missing eight games.
Jennings could see more time at nickel – a spot that Tucker said last month Jennings could excel at once he becomes more comfortable in the role, which would allow him to play at a high level both there and at corner.
“These guys want to be great and these guys have a tremendous amount of pride,” Tucker said. “When you ask a guy to do something new, they want to be great at it right away – it’s just how they are. So that’s (Jennings) approach.
“He just doesn’t want to go in there and be a guy, hang out in there and maybe make a couple of plays. He wants to be an excellent nickel, be productive and then go to corner and be excellent there.”
When Conte will return – or whether he will have a starting job to come back to – remains in question. Conte is largely remembered for a blown coverage on fourth down against the Packers that resulted in Randall Cobb’s 48-yard touchdown pass that spelled the difference in a 33-28 loss that erased the Bears playoff chances.
But like with the rest of the Bears’ defensive backs, Hoke won’t allow Conte to take the brunt of the blame for how the season ended or to become the face of the secondary’s failings.
“Chris will be fine – he will come back and I’m confident he will come back,” Hoke said. “I’ve been around Chris for a long time...I know Chris had impact on games (in 2012) and I expect him to get back to that level. He’s shown he can do it, he needs to get back to it and we need to make sure he gets back to it.”
While nothing is set in stone what the secondary will look like when the regular season starts against Buffalo, one thing is clear: Improvement is expected. Not only is the defense healthy up front, but the additions of Jared Allen and LaMarr Houston makes the defensive line “salty”, according to Tucker.
Although the toughness Tucker is looking throughout the defense starts up front, Hoke says he will do a better job coaching the secondary to live up to expectations. It’s a philosophy he learned at Florida when he worked for Steve Spurrier – Play bad, coach bad – including himself as part of last year’s problems.
Now with everyone intent on turning things around, Hoke says the rest comes down to making things happen on the field. But if that is going to happen, it will happen collectively with one side of the defense supporting the other.
“It’s always been rush and cover – that’s football,” Hoke said. “The cover part buys time for the rush. The rush part – get the ball out. We all know it’s tied together. We’re all tied together, period.”