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Bears safeties have been far from safe under Lovie Smith

Logan Paulsen BrandHardin

Logan Paulsen, Brandon Hardin

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Updated: September 23, 2012 6:25AM

Bears rookie safety Brandon Hardin didn’t do anything wrong when he suffered a debilitating neck injury tackling Washington Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen on Saturday. His form was not perfect, but for an NFL safety, that’s not necessarily bad form.

‘‘It wasn’t,’’ Bears coach Lovie Smith said. ‘‘You look at any game in the NFL, there are going to be times when the form isn’t perfect. He was trying to make a play and unfortunately got an injury.’’

Upon film review, Bears coaches said Hardin, a third-round draft pick from Oregon State, should have kept his head up. But it was not an egregious lapse of fundamentals.

As second-year safety Anthony Walters noted, ‘‘We’re hitting moving targets.’’

‘‘It looked good,’’ Bears nickel back D.J. Moore said. ‘‘I guess they’re saying his head was down. But every good tackler tackles like that. Troy Polamalu tackles like that. It looks like it’s almost headfirst, but it isn’t.’’

As the Bears see it, Hardin’s injury is a freak accident, and Chris Conte’s shoulder injury in the same game is one of those things ‘‘that’s going to happen’’ in a physical game, Smith said. ‘‘I think it’s a part of football, as simple as that.’’

That might be so. But it doesn’t answer a chronic question that has dogged the Bears and Smith almost from the time he brought his cover-2 defense to Chicago in 2004: Why can’t his safeties stay healthy?

Hardin’s injury is the latest in a litany of ‘‘freak accidents’’ that have sidelined Bears safeties since Mike Brown went on injured reserve with a torn Achilles tendon in Week 2 of Smith’s first season.

Brown, of course, is the poster boy for this phenomenon. Brown played in 65 consecutive games under Dick Jauron from 2000 to ’03. But in Smith’s cover-2, he missed 47 of 84 games in five seasons, finishing four seasons on injured reserve. Brown signed with the Chiefs in 2008 and played in all 16 games.

From Brown and Todd Johnson (hip pointer) to Kevin Payne (broken arm) and Brandon McGowan (sprained elbow/ankle surgery) to Al Afalava (knee) and Major Wright (broken thumb, hamstring, head/neck, shoulder sprain, ankle, hip), the Bears’ revolving door at safety has been laced with injuries.

Keeping safeties healthy is an NFL-wide problem, but the Bears seem more afflicted than most. Because of injuries and performance, the Bears have made 50 changes at the starting safety positions in Smith’s eight seasons as coach. No Bears safety has started more than 17 consecutive games. In only one season has the team started the same two safeties in every game — Danieal Manning (strong) and Chris Harris (free) in 2010, when the Bears ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in total defense.

There are a couple of theories as to why the Bears can’t keep their safeties healthy. The age-old one is that the Bears don’t tackle in training camp — ironically to avoid injuries — and aren’t conditioned for the physical nature of even preseason games. Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli are sticklers for fundamental tackling. Before the Redskins game, Marinelli put up a poster at Halas Hall of Frank Leahy’s eight keys to good tackling. ‘‘Keep your head up’’ is one of them. But the message doesn’t quite sink in when you don’t tackle in practice. ‘‘The only way you [learn to] tackle is to tackle,’’ Marinelli said, echoing the great Leahy.

Another theory is that the physical demands of the position in the Bears’ defense are an adjustment, especially for young players from smaller colleges or former collegiate cornerbacks such as Conte and Hardin.

Walters is all three — a second-year, small-college player (Delaware) making the transition from cornerback.

‘‘The toughest transition [is] being physical,’’ said Walters, who spent the final seven weeks of his rookie season on IR with a hamstring injury. ‘‘Reading your keys is still reading your keys. [But] you have to be more physical. It’s a lot more physical here than it is at Division I-AA, that’s for sure.’’

But even with their three best safety prospects — Major Wright, Conte and Hardin — suffering injuries in the first two preseason games, the Bears still consider it a cost of doing business.

‘‘It’s football,’’ Marinelli said. ‘‘I’ve seen that ever since I’ve been in this system. The safety has to come down and make those tackles. They’re your free hitters. And the type of guys we get like hitting.’’

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