Asked which Bears defensive lineman graded highest against the Bengals, Mel Tucker didn't let anybody see the scores but did offer a revealing peek at his mental notes.
"Stephen Paea did a nice job, Shea (McClellin) gave us some good reps, Nate Collins,'' Tucker said Wednesday after practice.
He stopped after three names. It was more telling who Tucker never mentioned.
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Nobody expected Tucker to single out Julius Peppers and Henry Melton, who had great seats for the opener. Saying nothing about the Bears' most dormant defensive stars said it all. And surely it spoke well to players that the defensive coordinator still establishing credibility in Chicago stopped short of criticizing Peppers and Melton. Pressed by reporters, Tucker routinely deflected the implied criticism and doled out responsibility to the group instead of individuals.
Neither Peppers nor Melton needed a public reminder of what Tucker surely made clear privately, that the Bears cannot achieve their lofty goals with the two defenders who make the most money making no impact. They already know this. Everybody knows this, so Tucker avoided risking an overreaction in the locker room by restating the obvious.
"When you look at our defense as a whole, eliminate big plays, generate rush with four guys, tackle better, get off the field on third down — that's the focus, not just on one guy,'' Tucker said.
True, but for the Bears to contend for the NFC North title, they will need Peppers, who coaches insist is healthy, to dominate more than he did against an offensive tackle in Anthony Collins who hadn't started an NFL game since December 2011. They will need Melton to get in shape so he can prove worthy of the $8.45 million salary the franchise tag guarantees him. They need both to create quarterback pressure with the front four to avoid gambling with blitzes that will expose aging cornerbacks more suited for zone coverage.
It falls on Tucker to subtly but strongly get through to Peppers and Melton before Sunday and then deliver a game plan that ensures one bad game doesn't become two.
That sounds easier said than done for Tucker, the affable, able 41-year-old who faces the toughest job on Marc Trestman's staff. He inherited a defense that wasn't broken, a unit led by five Pro Bowl players with loyalties to Lovie Smith. That made getting to know each other as big of a goal as getting off the field. Tucker believes the former affects the latter.
"We want to become closer, a tighter group,'' Tucker said. "Every day is an opportunity to grow as a defensive unit, coach to player, player to coach. Every day, we're selling, selling, selling.''
"We're selling technique and fundamentals, playing smart, playing fast and playing physical and taking the ball away,'' Tucker said.
Is every defensive player buying into Tucker's methods and game plans? The Bears bristle, but the real answer will come only after every Pro Bowl-caliber player starts performing for the new guy like he did for Smith and former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. That hasn't happened yet, despite Tucker investing heavily emotionally.
"The first thing he did for this defense is let them know how much he cares about them,'' Trestman said. "He's got great people skills, tremendous communication skills. He has the football acumen, the full package, and is an outstanding leader.''
Every day that Trestman educates the Chicago media with complete answers and considerate dialogue, it strikes an inevitable contrast with Smith, whose condescending style alienated fans and anesthetized media members. Every day, Trestman benefits by comparison.
Ironically, because of Smith, the same cannot be said yet about Tucker. Smith as well as Marinelli left a shadow that looms over the defense they molded. That will be the case until Tucker does something bold to emerge from it, a process that began at halftime against the Bengals. The Bears had slogged through the first half when Tucker gathered his defense wearing a game face players barely recognized.
"It surprised me,'' cornerback Tim Jennings said. "He seems calm and collected but can take it to another level and needed to. He came in and let us know we needed to raise our level of play. Coach Tuck has been on an even keel for so long, but he realized we were better than that, so he called us out.''
They deserved it on an uneven day for the defense. If Jennings hadn't forced Mohamed Sanu to fumble at the Bengals 19-yard line in the fourth quarter, the Bears were staring at 0-1 and tougher questions for Tucker to handle this week.
"I'm not an excuse or explanation guy,'' Tucker said. "It's a production business.''
He was referring to everybody, but especially those he didn't refer to.