BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery might have earned the loudest cheers during the first training camp practice of the summer for the Chicago Bears, but after the session was over the fans' biggest ovations were reserved for Jared Allen.
Bears fans embracing a once-disliked division foe shows you how much this group is desperate for defensive improvement.
Allen, for his part, wasn't sure when the end of his first camp session would arrive.
"Long, goodness," Allen said of head coach Marc Trestman's nearly three-hour practice. "I flashed back to [former Chiefs] Coach [Dick] Vermiel. Three hours? Woah!
"But, no, it was great."
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You can count on Allen for a few things, if nothing else: honesty, intensity and sacks, often spiked with his patented rodeo flourish at the end. Like clockwork, he has delivered those in equal doses with his two previous teams, the Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings, over his 10-year career.
Frankly, the Bears need some of what Allen has based on last season's results. A town steeped in defensive lore was gobsmacked by the unit's horrific run fits, lackluster rush and shoddy tackling in 2013. The defense also lacked its trademark snarl as the Bears watched the Green Bay Packers steal the NFC North crown on their home field in Week 17.
The Bears' offseason centered chiefly on getting better on all three levels of the defense. Allen is a big part of that design.
“The fans and the media want to talk about what happened last year,” Allen said. “I wasn’t here last year, so for me, it doesn’t matter. I know how things can change in one year.”
But Trestman was there last season, his first with the Bears, and he already likes what he's seeing from one of his key new additions on that side of the ball.
"I thought Jared set the tone defensively with the guys up front right from the start of practice," Trestman said. "You watch the way they're moving, they move to the ball. They really made an effort to show the guys how to do it.
"[Allen] not only started fast, but he finished strong."
It was a good first day for the defense. Trestman applauded the unit's two interceptions and one forced fumble during the first 12 plays of team work. Newcomers Allen, Lamarr Houston and rookie Kyle Fuller (two athletic interceptions) all had strong starts.
Trestman wouldn't speculate what effect Allen has had on his teammates.
"You'll have to ask the players," Trestman said. "But I just think Jared is very persistent. He's a very likeable guy in the locker room, a fun guy to have a conversation with. But when he's out there [on the field] you don't hear him. You see him. He's working."
Some of the more quiet defensive players such as linebacker Shea McClellin and defensive tackle Stephen Paea, who seldom are heard from, might disagree with Trestman's quiet assessment. They have taken notice of Allen's sometimes larger-than-life presence around them and are happy to follow in his wake. You could argue that the Bears brought in players such as Allen to help some of the younger defenders come out of their shells and push them in the right ways.
"He's definitely got a fun personality," McClellin said. "He brings the energy. If anyone needs any, he'll give you some."
Paea has watched Allen as a division opponent the past few years and noted that he falls into the hate-him-as-an-opponent, love-him-as-a-teammate category.
"He talks a lot and he backs it up," Paea said. "It's fun playing with guys like that. He's on me every time I make a mistake. I know he's got my back.
"You look at him, he's like 255 [pounds] playing defensive end, and people think, 'Oh, I can block him.' But he's just going to run you over. We need some more of that."
Allen had to wait until the first few waves of free agency to pass to find his new team. The champion Seattle Seahawks appeared to be his most likely destination, as they showed the most public interest in signing him. But the Bears were lying in the weeds and more than happy to add a talented defender who figures to start and — as he's been known for the past few seasons — play a large number of snaps at right end.
There's an interesting dynamic on the Bears' defense, which has a good amount of youth but also could feature six 30-year olds starting if defensive tackle Jay Ratliff stays healthy and linebacker D.J. Williams and safety Adrian Wilson earn their roles. Mainstays Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are the respected fixtures in the locker room.
"It's exciting to think about the talent we have," Allen said.
Even in this setup, Allen could emerge as a new leader in the picture. His many Vikings-fan disciples were sad to see him leave after six seasons and 85.5 sacks, missing a mere two games in his time there. A few of those diehard Allen devotees — dressed in purple — were even brave enough to make the trip into the Bears' den.
— Eric Edholm (@Eric_Edholm) July 25, 2014
"I saw a couple Minnesota fans up here," Allen said, laughing, as a nearby contingent chanted his name. "I just hope that everyone genuinely appreciates that I'm trying to bring more people with me here."
After finishing his media duties, Allen ran past the deafening serenade from his new group of zealots who can't wait to see what he brings to a team with legitimate playoff aspirations if this defense improves markedly. Allen even rewarded a few lucky ones by tossing a pair of his gloves into the crowd before running off, doing so with a wide grin as one fan was clotheslined by a rope keeping the unruly crowd at bay.
It's no surprise, but it hasn't taken long for Allen to make his mark on his new team. It would have been hard to expect any different.
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