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The Bears’ new and improved ‘salty’ defense

Updated: June 20, 2014 9:56AM

George Halas or Mike Ditka couldn’t have said it any better.

“There’s a way to play football in Chicago and that’s to be tough and physical — set a vertical edge, violent-shed and run to the football. We’ve go to practice that way every day to be the team we want to be.”

Bears coach Marc Trestman tried to put out the fire moments after speaking those words — “To write stories about toughness is just exaggerating … we’re just making it a point of emphasis” — but it was too late. When you start talking about the Chicago Bears and the need for “toughness” and then reference former Bears — like Ditka, Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson and Gale Sayers — talking about the glory days when men were men and the Bears were feared because of how nasty they were, there’s no turning back. Trying to keep that in perspective in this town is like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Playing tougher football might be a “point of emphasis” for Trestman, but it’s the meaning of life to long-time Bears fans who revel in the big-bad history of this franchise — from Bronko Nagurski to Dick Butkus to the Super Bowl Bears “Junkyard Dogs” to Brian Urlacher.

“We weren’t the tough team we wanted to be [in 2013] for a lot of different reasons. We want to accentuate it this year,” Trestman said when asked about defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s desire to be “salty … rugged … and stout” on defense after finishing 30th in the NFL in total defense in 2013.

“We’re a team that wants to play — even offensively — with a defensive mentality. The best defenses play tough and physical. Games are won — we talk about it every week — [at] the line of scrimmage. There’s seldom a game you win where you can’t at least somewhat run the ball effectively and stop the run. That has been a strong point of emphasis.”

A year after he rebuilt the offensive line, general manager Phil Emery is trying a similar trick on the defensive line in 2014. Annually among the league leaders in total defense and rushing defense under Lovie Smith, the Bears’ defense was an embarrassing 32nd in the NFL in total yards and rushing yards and 26th in sacks per pass play in 2013.

Emery signed five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen, Raiders sack leader Lamarr Houston and former Lions defensive end Willie Young in free agency. He re-signed former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff — a mid-season pickup last year who looks like he still has gas in the tank. And he drafted two tackles — Ego Ferguson of LSU in the second round and Will Sutton of Arizona State in the third round.

Two coaching-staff hires also have changed the tenor of the Bears’ defense — line coach Paul Pasqualoni (“a hard-nosed, tough guy, a no-nonsense guy,” Tucker said.) and linebackers coach Reggie Herring. Both are veteran coaches — Pasqualoni has coached since 1972; Herring since 1981 — and both have NFL experience.

Already, the roster battles indicate an upgrade. Stephen Paea was the starting defensive tackle last season. His absence was noticeable when he missed three games with an injury. But this year he’s fighting for a roster spot.

That’s the kind of competition the Bears are hoping will add even more fuel to the defensive line performance this season.

Tucker made it clear what the Bears were looking for.

“It’s a salty group,” Tucker said. “We’re putting a premium on toughness and being rugged and being stout — and having tremendous anchor in our d-line and being able to control blockers. [Players] that violent shed and make plays and push the pocket in the passing game, and then win one-on-ones.

“In order to do that you have to be tough and you have to be physical. You can’t play any other way if you don’t have tough guys who are willing to scrap and fight and toss guys around to win one-on-ones.”

Trestman came to Chicago as an outsider, but he has embraced the Bears tradition, maybe more than anybody thought he would.

“Being a Bear starts on the defensive side of the ball, and with the mentality of what a Bears defense plays like,” Trestman said. “Mike Singletary came by. Otis Wilson came by. Mike Ditka came by. Gale [Sayers] talked about it the other day when he was in — and we want to reinforce that.”

As Trestman pointed out, the Bears not only have to tough, but also tackle well. He might want to show his players highlights of the great Butkus — the meanest, baddest guy around also was a textbook tackler.

“Salty helps as long as your fundamentals and technique are sound,” Trestman said. “Tough guys without system doesn’t work very good. It all goes together. That’s what makes great defenses. We think we’ve got the right guys to do it. We’ll see. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”


Twitter: @MarkPotash

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