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Numbers Game a Tough One for Bears Defense

Several players who have been parts of past Bears defenses could be in need of a big preseason finale in order to stake a claim for a roster spot.

The final preseason game most likely will determine few if any starters on the defensive side for the Bears.

It can make a difference in who plays what role and also simply who has a job. 

Bears safety Tashaun Gipson remembers the feeling all too well of waiting and wondering. Gipson was an undrafted free agent with the Cleveland Browns out of Wyoming in 2012 and experienced everything some young Bears defensive players will go through from Saturday's preseason finale with Tennessee to Tuesday's final cutdown day.

"I feel like I'm the biggest advocate for it, man, because I was that guy," Gipson said. "I was that guy way back. Told my family don’t call me. Any number, you pray you don't get this Cleveland area code calling you before the deadline because you know that's (coaches) telling you, 'Hey.' "

That's 'hey' as in 'hey rookie, grab your playbook and bring it, coach wants to talk to you.' Or at least that's how the line went in the old days before a player got axed. Now it's a bit more streamlined and involves putting in a good word around the league for the player.

"It was a long day," Gipson said. "No matter how many years I put into this game, I always have that type of mentality, especially this time of the year for the young guys, the young guys you see out there fighting and clawing for a month straight."

The Bears have several defensive players who need to make a statement in the final preseason game and Gipson says all players on the fringe need to remember something.

"At the end of the day, there’s 31 other teams out there," he said. "That's the biggest thing these guys gotta understand: your fit might not be here but it's somewhere else."

Here are six Bears on defense who could use a strong effort against the to avoid looking for work somewhere else.

1. LB Josh Woods

The Bears may not keep five inside linebackers. They didn't last year on the final roster and probably should have. The problem last year was the backups were Woods and Joel Iyiegbuniwe and no one with experience. Now they have Alec Ogletree and Christian Jones. They could use one younger player in speed in there, but because of the way roster numbers fall at positions it's possible they'd go with four inside linebackers again. Woods would be an odd man out as he didn't impress last year when he had the chance to play late in the regular season, and Manti Te'o was brought up from the practice squad to start a playoff game. 

2. LB Joel Iyiegbuniwe

The Bears have already cut one seventh-round draft pick on offense in Javon Wims. They might wind up cutting fourth-rounder Riley Ridley. Would they cut another fourth-round pick. Iyiegbuniwe hasn't developed into a starting type talent but has been valuable on special teams with the combination of open-field speed and tackling ability. However, the sudden rise of Ogletree, the signing of Jones and the presence of Woods means Iyiegbuniwe would be well advised to produce his best preseason effort.

3. CB Xavier Crawford

Last year Crawford hung around on the practice squad and then got a chance to come up to play in three regular-season games. He made six tackles, allowed three completions in three targets and a TD. Crawford's value seemed to drop when veteran Artie Burns began getting first-team snaps on both sides of the field during Desmond Trufant's absence at this camp, and when Jaylon Johnson was gone very briefly on the right side. They kept five cornerbacks on last year's 53-man roster, it's hard to see how Crawford could fit into the mix.  Much could depend on Desmond Trufant, who seemed to lose the left starting cornerback spot by forfeit due to a week away from camp for "personal reasons." The Bears also may have decided Trufant hasn't done enough to even be on the roster. This would leave an opening for Crawford but he needs to give them something in the last game.

4. CB Thomas Graham Jr.

They wouldn't cut a sixth-round draft pick, would they? If Graham had played at the level he was early in camp, "maybe" would be a correct answer to the question. He was struggling. However, in the last week and a half he began to use his leverage better and play closer to targets. Graham made a play on a ball and nearly had an interception against Buffalo, had a practice pick and seemed to make strides. His versatility as a backup nickel cornerback or outside corner could serve him well, and of course he must fit in on special teams. Making special teams plays might be the small push he needs to get over the top and onto the roster.

5. NT Khyiris Tonga

Tonga has had coaches talking him up and made a case for himself in the Miami preseason game. The probability exists he would be on the roster for at least two games. They already put Mike Pennel on injured reserve and Tonga would be the sixth defensive lineman. They kept only five last year, but this year Mario Edwards Jr. has a two-game suspension to serve first. So they get a roster reprieve. The interesting thing will be what they'll do once Edwards is available. Would they put Tonga at risk then by cutting him and bringing him back for the practice squad? They have cut seventh-rounders before. Cornerback Stephen Denmark was an example. They did it with running back Kerrith Whyte, too, and then lost him off the practice squad to Pittsburgh. If Tonga makes another statement, he can build a good case for staying because he might not be a player the Bears want to risk on the practice squad.

6. S Marqui Christian

Christian has definitely done enough to stick on the roster as both a special teamer and a versatile, experienced performer in the secondary. They've used him some as a backup nickel, and at safety. The problem is they may not have the available roster spot to keep him. Putting Jordan Lucas on IR seemed to clear the way for Christian, but not necessarily. There's no reason they have to keep a fifth safety beyond backups Deon Bush and DeAndre Houston-Carson. The decision on whether to keep Trufant despite his absence and another minor injury in camp could impact whether Christian has a shot. They kept five safeties last year, and one was Sherrick McManis. He could play slot cornerback, as well. Christian fits this McManis type of mold, but he's a little bigger player and definitely someone special teams coordinator Chris Tabor could use.

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