Have Bears finally found the best safety combo?
Afalava and Payne lasted one game. But Afalava and Manning didn’t work either.
No big surprise there. The Bears (5-7) have searched for the right safety combination ever since they traded Chris Harris after the 2005 season.
Mike Brown and Danieal Manning started for most of 2006, but Manning made the biggest defensive mistake of Chicago’s Super Bowl loss. In 2007, Manning and Adam Archuleta formed a disastrous tandem. In 2008, the Bears shuffled Kevin Payne in with Brown. This year, the Bears started with Afalava and Payne, switched to Afalava and Manning, started Josh Bullocks for one game and moved in Corey Graham and Nathan Vasher occasionally.
Nothing stuck. And last week, for the first time since Payne and then-cornerback Vasher were benched after allowing a late, game-winning 50-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings in a 21-15 loss season-opening loss at Green Bay, the Bears went back to the Afalava-Payne tandem.
“We were pleased with how those two played last week,” coach Lovie Smith said.
But not pleased enough to say they’ll start together again in Sunday’s return game against Green Bay.
“It’s hard,” Afalava said of not knowing his status and also switching from strong safety to free safety, “but we’re professionals. You’ve got to be able to adjust. They are going to make changes. You’ve got to be ready to play different positions. Strong. Free. Or just special teams. They make a lot of changes.”
Chicago’s safety flux began when Brown missed 43 games with injuries from 2004-07. It accelerated when Manning failed to hold his spot. Now the safety roulette wheel has stopped on Afalava and Payne, a pair of low-round draft picks noted mostly for their run support.
“Wherever they need me, I’ll do whatever they ask me to do,” Afalava said of getting his first action at free safety last week. “It’s different, but you’ve just got to get used to it. I’m comfortable.”
Payne, a natural strong safety, has also spent time at free safety. Chicago can flip-flop safeties because it draws less of a distinction between the two than most teams.
“It’s not a big difference here,” Payne said. “It depends on what defense we’re in. Look at St. Louis when I played strong. I was around the line of scrimmage at times and sometimes I was in the deep middle. It just depends on what we’re trying to show the offense.
“Coaches put a lot of emphasis on knowing both positions. The more you know, the more you can play and the better off you are, so I know both positions. All our safeties know both positions. At the end of the day, we just want to be out there playing.”
Payne isn’t looking for redemption against Green Bay, to make up for the play that cost him his starting job for 10 weeks. “I don’t want to put too much emphasis on it,” he said.
The same goes for returning to the starting lineup.
“Even when I wasn’t starting,” he said, “I prepared myself like I was. It’s not a time to duck your head in the closet. “You want to be out on the field, but when at the end of the day you are not out on the field, you just have to continue to work hard and get better.”
Because you never know where Chicago’s safety roulette wheel will stop next.
Assistant sports editor Matt Trowbridge can be reached at 815-987-1383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.