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When Buster Skrine told PFW Wednesday at Halas Hall following the Bears’ first OTA open to the media that “you can’t beat this defense,” he wasn’t making any bold predictions for the season ahead.
Skrine, who 10 weeks earlier signed a three-year contract including $8.5 million guaranteed to replace Bryce Callahan as the Bears new nickel corner, simply sounded as if he was still basking in his new surroundings.
“Just to be in that group of guys,” Skrine explained. “Everybody’s good. Everybody’s professional. No distractions.”
Mind you, the first half of Skrine’s NFL career was spent in Cleveland prior to the past four years with the New York Jets. It’s easy to see, then, why working for reigning Coach of the Year Matt Nagy and one of the NFL’s charter franchises on the NFL’s top-rated ‘D’ would be a refreshing change of scenery.
The question on most Bears fans minds when it comes to Skrine and the defense’s other new starter, FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, is whether the defense can remain as unbeatable on the field with two new key cogs on the back end. Remember, Chicago returns its top six defensive linemen and top six linebackers from last year’s ‘D’ that led the league in fewest total points, rushing yards allowed and the least passing yards permitted per play, not to mention easily tallying the most takeaways.
The secondary is really the primary source of turnover, especially if we throw in rookie CBs Duke Shelley and Stephen Denmark. Still, there’s some carryover, too, whether it’s Clinton-Dix rejoining his college teammate Eddie Jackson or Skrine arriving in a defense that appears to be tailor-made for his skill set.
Skrine, 30, might not be as dynamic as the 27-year-old Callahan but has been more dependable.
“[Skrine] will mix it up in the run, he can blitz, and he’s reliable,” Bears new secondary coach Deshea Townsend explained. “He’s tough. One thing about the nickel position, you have to do a little bit of both. You can’t just go out on third down and cover the option routes. Now they go hand off the ball, they find where you’re at and you have to go make the tackle. He’s tough enough. He has enough play experience where if he makes mistakes, he can correct himself by the time he gets to the sideline and that’s all it takes to be a nickel.”
Conversely, Clinton-Dix hasn’t been as steady as his predecessor, Adrian Amos, but he has a Pro Bowl on his resume because—and the Bears seemingly share this assessment—he has more versatility and, in turn, upside.
“He's as good as he wants to be,” new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said Wednesday of Clinton-Dix. “...He's got length. He’s got great instincts. He's got ball skills. So everything you're looking for in a safety because he can play down in the box and he can play in the deep parts of the zone. Then you can match him up and put him on backs and tight ends and things like that. So he's got all the skill set necessary to do all those things.”
Here’s what Skrine and Clinton-Dix have in common — beyond being the newcomers to the unit: they couldn’t be more thrilled in their landing spots. Clinton-Dix told reporters Wednesday how excited he was to again play with Jackson on a "special" defense.
It remains to be seen whether it helps him rediscover his 2016 form, when he was among the league leaders with five interceptions, but it's safe to say he's yet to play in the NFL with such a talented group. He's also almost assuredly motivated after a humbling past year that included the former first-rounder being traded from Green Bay to Washington and settling for a one-year contract including "only" $500,000 guaranteed.
"His presence, his leadership skills," Jackson said of Jackson, "he’s a true pro, a true vet. Out on the field he’s a competitor. He went to Alabama so you got to be ready to compete to come out here."
The Bears don't necessarily need Skrine to morph into a takeaway specialist after failing to pick off a pass last season and totaling only nine interceptions in his first eight seasons. That's what Clinton-Dix but especially Jackson and Kyle Fuller are for. Chicago needs Skrine to stay on the field while maintaining his scrappy style and veteran presence.
“I just feel like I’m an aggressive player and I match the defense’s mentality," Skrine said. "That’s why I think I got picked up here.”
— Arthur Arkush