The Bears’ next-man-up philosophy will be put to the test Sunday when their CB-depleted defense faces the Buccaneers, the NFL’s No. 1 offense in total yards and passing yards.
Starting CB Prince Amukamara and veteran backup Marcus Cooper both missed a second straight day of practice Thursday with hamstring injuries. In their expected absence Sunday at Soldier Field, nickel CB Bryce Callahan is the likely starter across from Kyle Fuller in the base defense. In obvious passing situations, Callahan would move back to his normal nickel spot inside, and undrafted rookie CB Kevin Toliver would play outside. That’s the scheme the Bears used in the second half last week after Amukamara came up lame. If he were healthy, Cooper would have replaced Amukamara, allowing Callahan to stay inside full time.
At 5-foot-9 and 188 pounds, Callahan is best suited to play in the slot where he usually matches up against smaller, quicker receivers. But, in addition to starting games at nickel, including two this year, he’s opened outside at corner in each of the past three seasons among his total of 19 career starts.
Callahan’s third career interception last week with 1:10 remaining preserved the Bears’ 16-14 victory over the Cardinals.
“He’s performed very well and he can play (outside) corner,” Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “He’s played corner for us in the past, and we feel good about him at corner.”
The bigger concern is Toliver, because he’s more of an unknown quantity. But the Bears were impressed enough by his play in training camp and the preseason to keep him over Cre’Von LeBlanc, who started 10 games and played in 28 the previous two years, mostly at nickel. Bears head coach and offensive play-caller Matt Nagy was asked, if the situation were reversed, would he alter his game plan to take advantage of an inexperienced rookie on the opposing defense.
“Not really,” Nagy said. “Because if you do that, then you’re worrying about something that may not even be a factor in the game. Who knows what they’re doing or what they’re thinking. And, if they are thinking that, then Vic and his guys will have a way to help him out and/or just let him play.
“This is a part of the next-man-up mentality, and this kid, Kevin, has played under some big-time lights at LSU. That part of it, I’m not concerned about. He came in last week and did a good job. But for him, this is an opportunity to come in and try to show what he can do.”
Toliver played 22 of the defense’s 50 snaps last week, and the Cardinals picked on him with some success.
“I thought he did fine,” Fangio said. “They obviously went after him a little bit there toward the end. We helped him some (by shading a safety over); and sometimes we didn’t. I thought he responded well. They caught some balls in front of him, and he got double-moved (for a 32-yard gain). So it was baptism under fire. But I didn’t see a guy out there who looked out of place, and I’m glad he got those reps, because I think it helps him for this week.”
The shorthanded situation also gave special-teams standout Sherrick McManis an opportunity to play some defense last week. He made the most of his five defensive snaps with an interception late in the third quarter and a sack to end the game.
“He’s a team guy, first and foremost,” Fangio said of the nine-year veteran out of Northwestern. “He’s tough. He’s fast. He’s athletic. I’m just happy for his success. He’s a guy that, based on the way he plays special teams, he should be able to have a role on defense. And starting at the end of last year, we’ve been carving out a role for him, and I’m not afraid to use him.”