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Bears’ defense limited by injuries, but all involved optimistic

Major Wright (27) has had an inconsistent preseasbut coach Lovie Smith isn’t concerned. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Major Wright (27) has had an inconsistent preseason, but coach Lovie Smith isn’t concerned. | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:25AM

Lovie Smith often bristles at even the hint of criticism. But when the Bears coach was asked after practice Thursday about safety Major Wright ‘‘struggling’’ in a 41-13 preseason loss to the New York Giants on Monday, his snarky response was hardly out of line.

‘‘So, the second preseason game, [his] first year starting, he struggled on a second preseason game?’’ Smith said. ‘‘Uh, we’re not gonna get rid of him based on that. I promise you that.

‘‘He was outstanding the first game. It happens like that from time to time. We’ll correct the things he messed up on the second time. He’s a good football player. He’s gonna help us win a lot of games around here.’’

That’s part of the awkwardness of preseason football. You give up 41 points in any game against any opponent, and your defense is going to be an issue — whether its Major Wright getting juked out of his socks, D.J. Moore getting beat for a touchdown or Lance Briggs and Anthony Adams possibly missing the rest of the preseason.

But even Smith lamented the fact that the Bears have one takeaway in two preseason games.

‘‘That’s just not us,’’ he said.

And after the Bears won the NFC North and reached the NFC Championship Game last season, the Bears have earned the right to brush it all off and remind us they’ll be there when the bell rings.

‘‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with [the defense],’’ safety Chris Harris said. ‘‘I feel like we’re fine. It’s the same as it’s been every year. Last year we were 0-4 and we had a top-five defense [in points allowed]. We let y’all pay attention to the preseason stuff. It doesn’t really bother us.’’

‘‘We’re not ready to play the first game yet,’’ linebacker Nick Roach said. ‘‘But that’s OK because we’ve got awhile.’’

Fair enough. But even the Bears’ coaching staff will be looking for significant improvement in Saturday night’s game against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville. With backups expected to get most of the snaps in the preseason finale against the Cleveland Browns on Thursday at Soldier Field, this will be the final tune-up before opening the regular season with a bang: Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints and Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in consecutive weeks.

‘‘Those are three tough opponents with three great quarterbacks and three great offenses,’’ Bears cornerback Tim Jennings said. ‘‘We want to hit the ground running. The main thing is we want to make sure everybody is healthy, and we’ll be fine.’’

Whether the Bears will open the season in good health remains to be seen. Adams, the starting nose tackle, suffered a calf injury after three practices and likely will miss the rest of the preseason, as will Briggs, who has a bruised knee.

‘‘It hurts every day that they’re not out here,’’ Smith said. ‘‘But they have been around a while. They know what we expect. They know the defense. But there’s a reason why we practice. Hopefully before long, we’ll get them out. But we’re a better defensive team with both of those players. I’m just banking on them being ready to go.’’

The Bears suffered fundamental breakdowns against the Giants that led to missed tackles. With Briggs out and Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher playing less than a full quarter, nobody was there to make up for those mistakes.

‘‘We didn’t tackle well,’’ defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. ‘‘Some of the things are angles. We kind of overshot the ball a little bit. [The Giants are] a good cutback team. The backs aren’t overly fast backs, but they are cutback guys. So that was a big part of it. But we just didn’t quite get that done.’’

How do you correct that?

The first thing I’ve always believed is, you go right back to your fundamentals,’’ Marinelli said. ‘‘See what you have to correct, show it to them, and make sure you explain it to them correctly. ‘This is what we’ve got to get done.’ They’re men. You show it to them.’’

There are other issues to address. With defensive end Corey Wootton out for three more weeks after arthroscopic surgery, the Bears are looking for a third defensive end. The defensive line as a whole, expected to be a strength, hasn’t made a big impact. Tackle Amobi Okoye is getting there. But end Vernon Gholston still has a lot to prove and not much more time to prove it.

As for Major Wright, the second-year pro from Florida might turn out to be the least of the defensive concerns. Overall, he’s been better than expected. Asked to name the most improved player on a veteran defense, Jennings went with Wright.

‘‘He came in last year not really knowing what he could do and now I think he feels comfortable with the defense,’’ Jennings said. ‘‘He’s running around. He’s smooth. He knows more. He’s in position to make more plays. He’s got the preseason games to get the kinks out and he’ll be running smoothly when the season starts.’’

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