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Bears’ Chris Conte, Major Wright are an outstanding cover twosome

Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli lauded safeties Major Wright (21) Chris Conte (47). | Getty Images

Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli lauded safeties Major Wright (21) and Chris Conte (47). | Getty Images

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Updated: November 21, 2012 6:14AM



The cover-2 defense is a classic bend-but-don’t-break scheme. But even at its best, big plays will happen.

So when Falcons running back Michael Turner broke loose for a 53-yard run in last year’s opener, it was a first-game hiccup. And when the Saints got behind Major Wright for a 79-yard touchdown in Week 2, it was a young player making the mistake of underestimating a fast wide receiver’s speed. And when the Panthers’ Steve Smith was wide open for a 53-yard catch to the 1-yard line, it was a busted coverage.

But when Calvin Johnson burned veteran safeties Chris Harris and Brandon Meriweather for a 73-yard touchdown and Jahvid Best went 88 yards untouched for another touchdown and later went 43 yards on another veteran error — all in Week 5 against the Lions — the cover-2 suddenly was a break-but-don’t-bend defense, which won’t work.

After allowing six plays of 50 yards or more in the previous three seasons, the Bears were burned for five in five weeks — including four of the five longest plays of coach Lovie Smith’s eight-year tenure. And something had to be done.

A week later, starting safeties Harris and Meriweather were benched in favor of rookie Chris Conte and Wright. With Craig Steltz filling in for both players later in the season, the Bears righted their listing defense.

And now, with a fortified defensive line providing margin for error, the Bears’ defense is back to bending but not breaking. The longest pass play against the unit this season is 34 yards. The longest running play is 28 yards.

What happened?

‘‘I wish I knew; I don’t know,’’ middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said. ‘‘[At] Detroit, we gave up [two] plays of 50 yards or more, I think — the [73]-yard touchdown, the [88]-yard TD run — so I don’t know what the difference is.

‘‘We just started playing better for some reason. We had the bye week right after that. That might have helped. We just started playing better, getting the details fine-tuned and did a better job.’’

The tandem of Conte at free safety and Wright at strong safety deserves its share of the credit. The 6-2, 203-pound Conte is a 2011 third-round draft pick who played mostly cornerback at Cal. The 5-11, 204-pound Wright is a 2010 third-round pick from Florida.

‘‘They’re everything,’’ Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. ‘‘They’ve got speed, and they’re athletes — that’s what I like.

‘‘The biggest thing is that they tackle. And they tackle in space. Not tackle in a box. You have to tackle in space. And that takes great athleticism. You eliminate a lot of big plays by tackling in space. We’re very, very fortunate to have players of that caliber.’’

Conte uses his ample downhill speed to line up deep in the secondary and play his position by the book. He also credited his developing chemistry with Wright. The duo started six games last year and all five games this season.

‘‘We talk about staying as deep as the deepest [receiver], and when the ball is thrown, as deep as the ball,’’ Conte said. ‘‘We just want to make sure we keep everything in front of us.’’

That’s one key to making the cover-2 work.

‘‘We don’t want to give up the big play because we feel like with our defense, we can really make people have to grind it out and make them make the mistakes, throw us interceptions, turnovers,’’ Conte said.

As Urlacher noted last year, the less-obvious factor in the elimination of big plays is focus — a trait that Smith and Marinelli have instilled in their players with even more intensity since last season’s early breakdowns.

‘‘Their job is to find ways to refocus, redirect and just reinvent that formula every week,’’ defensive end Israel Idonije said. ‘‘And they’ve done a great job of that.

‘‘Coach Marinelli is a tactician when it comes to keying guys in, presenting a challenge and [encouraging] guys to meet the challenge. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone better at that than coach Marinelli.’’



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