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1985 Bears Coverage: Ryan sees defensive sag

Every day of the 2015 Chicago Bears season, Chicago Sun-Times Sports will revisit its coverage 30 years ago during the 1985 Bears’ run to a Super Bowl title.

Ryan sees defensive sag

Brian Hewitt

Originally published Sept. 5, 1985

The Bears will not lead the NFL in defense this year without holdout starters Todd Bell and Al Harris.

That was the cold, harsh assessment of Bear defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan yesterday at the Bears Lake Forest headquarters.

It was not a surprising assessment, but it was the Bears’ first top-level acknowledgement of how much they will miss the pair since the pre-season ended Saturday night.

“We’re certainly not as coordinated as we were at the end of the year last year,” said free safety Gary Fencik. “And because of the two replacements, we’re probably not as far along in working together as a group as we should be.”

“We’ll be in the top five in defense without them,” said Ryan. “But we’re always in the top five, aren’t we?”

In case you’ve spent the summer trolling for the Titanic in the North Atlantic, strong safety Bell and right outside linebacker Harris still haven’t reported to the Bears.

Chances dim

The prospects of them doing so soon are not bright. General manager Jerry Vainisi said yesterday the Bears had taken their latest offers to Bell and Harris off the bargaining table. Their agents rejected the offers last week.

Meanwhile, the season opener is Sunday at Soldier Field against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, beginning at noon. Barring an unexpected 11th-hour negotiating miracle, Dave Duerson will replace Bell in the starting lineup, and Wilber Marshall will replace Harris.

“If the defense was 100 percent last year, then I’d say we’re 85 or 90 now,” said Ryan. “Duerson has done a great job. But Todd can do things Duerson can’t do.” Like cover wide receivers.

“Dave is smart and quick,” said Ryan. “But he doesn’t have the physical attributes of Todd Bell.”

Nor does Marshall have the experience or the reach to cover Tampa tight end Jimmie Giles the way Harris can.

And Ryan’s immediate problems don’t stop there.

“We’re not playing right now as well as we should be,” said Fencik. “But that’s because Hampton’s not quite up to par yet. And Singletary really needs a little more time and I haven’t practiced as much.”

Defensive tackle Dan Hampton underwent arthroscopic surgery in the offseason and didn’t play the first two pre-season games. Middle linebacker Mike Singletary also missed the first two summer games with a contract disagreement. And Fencik has been nursing an off-and-on leg injury.

The Bears have listed starting left linebacker Otis Wilson as questionable (knee and ankle) for Tampa Bay. If he can’t play, Ryan will substitute with San Diego castoff Cliff Thrift. “Otis is not going to make the mistakes that Thrift would,” said Ryan.

Wilson didn’t practice yesterday but says he will start against the Buccaneers. If he doesn’t last 60 minutes, Thrift’s presence will be, according to Fencik, “yet another ingredient to take away from the cohesiveness that is so critical to making our defense effective.”

Frazier hurting

Finally there is the nagging thigh injury that has plagued right cornerback Leslie Frazier all summer. Frazier is also questionable. His backup is rookie Ken Taylor.

“We’re certainly not going into the best of situations,” said Fencik. “But we can play as well in certain areas as we did at the end of last year.”

Head coach Mike Ditka thinks one such area is causing turnovers. The Bears intercepted 21 passes and recovered 13 fumbles last season. Saturday night they forced seven turnovers in a 45-14 rout of Buffalo.

“The other night was what I call defense,” he said. “I don’t care how many yards they got. So what? We got seven turnovers. That’s football. I think that’s where we can become a better team.”

And that’s where Ditka likes Duerson: “There’s no question that Dave Duerson has the best nose for the football on the team.

“I don’t say that we’ll have 72 sacks or be No. 1 over all against the run or No. 2 against the pass. But over all, I think we can be just as effective in points given up and yardage given up.”