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Lovie’s ball-stripping ‘D’ just fine by new Bears coaches

Updated: July 31, 2013 6:30PM

BOURBONNAIS — Lovie Smith is gone, but the former Bears coach left Marc Trestman and Mel Tucker a defense that’s more than just a legacy.

Charles Tillman hasn’t forgotten how to strip the ball. Henry Melton hasn’t forgotten how to bat the ball at the line of scrimmage. Lance Briggs hasn’t forgotten how to intercept it. Kelvin Hayden hasn’t forgotten how to recover a fumble. And every Bears defender still knows how to take every loose ball in practice to the end zone.

Tucker’s smartest move as the new defensive coordinator was his first one — to keep Smith’s defense virtually intact. The returning defenders aren’t worried about learning a new language or new techniques or new alignments. They’re spending most of their time in practice doing what many of them were taught by Smith during his nine years as coach and by Rod Marinelli in his three years as defensive coordinator — go to the ball, strip the ball, tackle the ball carrier and do whatever you can to force a turnover. When Matt Forte caught a pass over the middle in practice Monday, Hayden forced a tug-of-war struggle for the ball and — not surprisingly — won it.

Tucker is in charge. But it still looks like Smith’s defense.

‘‘[Tucker] brings that energy. He’s a really fiery guy,’’ third-year safety Chris Conte said. ‘‘It’s such a similar personality to our defense from before. It’s hard to replace Rod Marinelli. But we’re stressing the same things. We want to have fun, fly around to the football, create turnovers. I think we’re going to be very similar to the way we looked last year.’’

The 41-year-old Tucker calls the defense a ‘‘work in progress,’’ but that’s mostly because the players and coaches still are trying to get to know each other. Relative to most coaching changes, this is a transition-less transition.

‘‘We’re kind of just working through a lot of stuff we were trying to fix from last year,’’ said Melton, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle last season. ‘‘It’s been a pretty smooth transition. [Tucker’s] not as crazy as Rod by any means. But he definitely has his own thing going, and we’re just working off of that.’’

Tucker inherited a defensive core that Smith nurtured. But he has worked hard to win the veterans’ trust. A former recruiter for Jim Tressel at Ohio State and Nick Saban at Michigan State and LSU, he knows how to play that game.

‘‘I feel good about what we’re doing out here with these guys,’’ he said when asked if he feels he’s getting through to the veterans. ‘‘I kind of gauge it by the effort that’s given and the interaction — the feedback.

‘‘I spend a lot of time talking to the veteran players about lots of things. That’s important time invested. They need to get to know me. I need to get to know them. So I make it a point to spend a lot of time, whether it’s Lance or Peanut [Tillman] or Pep [Julius Peppers], D.J. [Williams]. James Anderson. Tim [Jennings] — we’re always talking. That’s what you have to do to get it done.’’

The transition appears to be toughest on Briggs, who has inherited play-calling duties from departed captain Brian Urlacher.

‘‘It’s different,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘You’ve been in a system for a long time. You’re now told to change and do things a different way. It just takes time.’’

But even Briggs knows that as much as the veterans were tethered mentally to Smith, ‘‘the defense is the star of the defense’’ no matter who’s running it.

‘‘Our defense is tethered to details,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ve always been tethered to details, no matter if it was under Tony Dungy or Lovie or Ron Rivera. That’s one thing we’ll continue to do.

‘‘We’ve got a lot of tools. The young guys are learning from the older guys, and the older guys are able to take [what] we’ve done in the past and take it to another level.’’

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