SPORTS

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May 11, 2004

Bears and Bulls need to rediscover defensive success

It's springtime, the weather's mild, the sun's out, and it's baseball season. Chicago's professional baseball scene has dominated much of sports talk. After all, it's what the city needs from the Bears' and Bulls' dreary performances last season. But with the NBA draft quickly approaching and the NFL draft just completed, there is a fevered excitement about what lies ahead for the two once-storied franchises next season: the Killer B's.

The Bears and Bulls were once powerhouses in the Midwest. Known for their stingy defense, the two pro teams embodied a lot of the blue-collar culture Chicago stood for. Players hustled in creating an aura of invincibility and almost reckless arrogance that both the Bulls and Bears could shut down anyone, anywhere.

But, ask any Bulls or Bears fan about last season's defensive performance, and he or she will probably mutter, "Defense who?" The Killer B's were less than killer on defense compared to Michael Jordan's Bulls and the 2001 NFC Central Champion Bears

How does the mantra go? Defense wins championships. For this very reason, the Dallas Mavericks, the team with the most loaded bench and starting five players, failed to advance past the first round. Defense is why the Bill Parcel's Dallas Cowboys went 10-6 despite having neither Aikman nor Smith.

Teams have been built and shaped around having exceptional defense. During their 2001 stint, the 13-3 Bears won games because they were able to effectively shut down the running and passing game and keep the game close enough to be won by field goals or interception returns.

It seems that the Bears are on the way to a speedy recovery. They started this offseason by first hiring defensive-minded Lovie Smith as the new coach. Smith guided St. Louis to a defensive resurgence, after rebuilding the Rams' defense with eight new starters in his first season.

In this year's draft, Chicago filled key needs along the defensive line. Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson, Chicago's first two picks in the draft, fit Smith's newly envisioned, lightening-quick defensive attack. Out of the team's eight selections in the draft, the Bears chose six defensive players.

While rumors continue to swirl about newly booted Kurt Warner, star quarterback for the Rams, possibly joining Chicago, Smith has been intent on keeping the team's focus solely on defense. Lovie's goal is to improve on an NFC-worst of 20 turnovers induced last season with a new defensive scheme that has linemen and linebackers trying to get up field faster. Smith wants to imitate a St. Louis Rams' defense that caused a league-high of 46 turnovers.

To cause more turnovers, the Bears want their defensive linemen to shoot gaps, move the line of scrimmage, and wreak havoc in opposing backfields. While the concern is that teams can run against the undersized Bears, the payoff is enormous—the defense is always moving at full speed, which theoretically leads to bigger hits and more fumbles. To fit this aggressive attack-style defense, Smith has been adamant about players being in shape, telling several veterans, Brian Urlacher included, that they need to lose weight.

For the Bulls, a quick fix to their defensive problems is not as simple. In the following months, key decisions will soon have to be made on the course of this franchise. With only 7 out of 15 players signed, John Paxson will have to decide on whom he will keep from free agency or the expansion draft.

Out of the eight who are free agents, Marcus Fizer and Jamal Crawford are no doubt the big question marks. Fizer has played inconsistently, and with a surplus of power forwards, the Bulls have yet to fully use him.

Slotted for the starting shooting guard position, Crawford had a very disappointing season. As an undersized two guard, Crawford failed to play either the point or two guard position well, often having defensive lapses and poor ball-handling judgment. During key fourth-quarter stretches, Scott Skiles, first-year head coach, had to put in Scottie Pippen or Janeer Pargo to close out games. But, despite this, the Bulls think highly of Crawford's scoring ability. With Jalen Rose gone, Crawford is as close as the Bulls have to a legitimate superstar.

But both Crawford and Fizer have already made it known that they will test free agency.

From afar, it looks like the defensive and offensive mess both Paxson and former manager Jerry Krause have made will be tricky to fix. The Bulls will need to rebuild completely. The two teenage phenomena, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, simply didn't hustle and guard the point well. Hampered with early fouls in the game, Curry was often benched. While Curry and Chandler both have the talent and height to be star players, they lack the motivation.

From now to when the season starts in November, the Bulls will need to completely overhaul their image. Defense wins games, and since the 1998 season, the Bulls have had neither exceptional offense nor defense. Perhaps they can package Curry or Chandler with this year's draft picks to obtain a solid core of defensive specialists. Theo Ratliff, a center on the Portland Trailblazers, is a possibility.

Or maybe, like the Bears, the Bulls would fare better in the draft. Emeka Okafor, the consensus number one overall pick, would provide a defensive presence sorely lacking on this team. Okafor has the arm length and the blocking skills to generally cause havoc in the front court. If the lottery balls roll right, the Bulls could have a chance to draft him.

In any case, I am only offering suggestions. As an avid Bulls and Bears fan, I can only hope one day that Chicago will again be home to the Killer B's.