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Defensive Trio Bears Watching

Three players in particular on defense are worth watching for the Bears when they open preseason Saturday at noon at Soldier Field against Kansas City.

In lieu of Roquan Smith and his zany hold-in without representation, the Bears defense has Nicholas Morrow as the field leader. 

He hasn't played for them, didn't play in the NFL last year, and actually to get technical according to NFL game day stat books only two of his 29 starts came at the position he now plays, middle linebacker.

Still, he's been around now six seasons, and even when he didn't start at middle linebacker he often played the position as a situational off-ball player in a scheme like this one. 

So if someone should know where this Bears defense is under defensive coordinator Alan Williams heading into the preseason opener, it's Morrow.

"As a player, at least, it's hard for me to say where we are as a group," Morrow said. "When you look at communication, is our communication clear? We can clean up that. Are our fits correct? Are we using the right leverage? We can look at some of that stuff."

The big concern is have they had the time to pull together that critical  communication needed for the Tampa-2 style zone when they're missing injured cornerback Kyler Gordon, cornerback Tavon Young and cornerback Kindle Vildor. And, of course, how effective can they be in the scheme with Matthew Adams at weak side linebacker instead of Smith. 

Morrow thinks scheme is a bit overrated, and that more than any tactical positioning hustle defines this scheme.

"Defensively, you have to win with effort," Morrow said. "That's been shown time and time again. Running to the football creates turnovers; punching the ball out, picking it up, recovering it. I think effort is definitely No. 1.

"I think (coach Matt Eberflus is) putting that on the plate for us."

The Bears will get the chance to defend Patrick Mahomes, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Brandon Mebane for about a quarter before reserves come in. They'll no doubt get a good idea of where their zone coverage resides.

Here are three defensive players to watch in Saturday's preseason opener at noon against the Chiefs at Soldier Field.

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1. Safety Jaquan Brisker

Their second-round pick has been able to cover well at camp but he doesn't really get the chance to lower the boom, which is something he's known to do from Penn State. He'll get the chance to put on the hits Saturday. He's not treating his first game action as a chance to prove himself, possibly even by covering tight end Travis Kelce.

"I'm not thinking 'Patrick Mahomes or Travis Kelce,' people like that," Brisker said. "I'm coming there to compete and show what I'm all about. My first NFL game, so it's all business."

2. Defensive Tackle Justin Jones

The three positions most often associated with the Tampa-2 are the three technique, the slot cornerback and the weak side linebacker. They don't have Smith for the weak side. Young and Gordon are the slot cornerback candidates and they have neither available.

The one key position they can look at is the three technique and Jones, their free agent acquisition from the Chargers. He has never actually played the three technique in a 4-3 front like the Bears are using. They badly need him to come through because the interior pressure is key to helping force turnovers both against the pass and run. Jones must be disruptive and doing it to the Chiefs would be a good start.

So far good rushes against the Bears offense in practice get ended by a whistle or ignored and Justin Fields throws on the scramble.

"We're all working at training camp," Jones said. "Training camp is not just for one player, it's for everybody. Obviously, if you have a good rush there's also things you can work on. Like for me, I know one thing I can personally work on, even if I do get a sack, I can turn and run to the ball."

Now, though, Jones doesn't need to think of ways to hide his frustration at not getting a piece of the QB. He can be selfish and actually sack the quarterback.

3. Nose Tackle Khyiris Tonga

The Bears are only using the nose candidates in their base defense, which is less than half the time. But they need to know if their huge 2021 seventh-round pick can fit into a one-gap defensive scheme or whether he's just a two-gaper who eats blockers. Tonga is likely to start or play extensively in the game because the player who was with starters through much of the offseason work was Angelo Blackson, and he has been injured for two weeks. They aren't even sure that Blackson can be the nose in this scheme, either, because he's only played in three-man lines in his career. And the other player at this position is Mike Pennel, who signed just before minicamp and is a veteran journeyman. Someone needs to reach out and seize this position and Tonga could have a good shot in the first game.

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