Safety concerns

Jason Cole

MIAMI – Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith brought some light reading with him on the plane ride to Super Bowl XLI on Sunday: Eighteen pages about quarterback Peyton Manning's career from the Indianapolis Colts media guide.

"That gives you an idea what we have in store," said Smith, who was nattily dressed in a dark blue suit and gold tie only a couple of hours after the Bears' plane landed at Miami International Airport. "But we have a couple of scholarship players, too."

Smith has known Manning for years, having coached at the University of Tennessee when Manning was a serious freshman. That rich history of accomplishment and relationship should make Smith painfully aware of one important thing: He has to find a way to cover for his vastly inexperienced safeties.

With all due respect, Smith doesn't have a high-level "scholarship" player back there. He has second-year starter Chris Harris, a 2005 sixth-round pick out of Louisiana-Monroe, and rookie Danieal Manning, a second-round pick from Abilene Christian. Manning is a talented free safety, but the reality is that he didn't even start at the beginning of the season.

Beyond that, it was only about 14 months ago that Manning was facing the likes of Eastern New Mexico, Angelo State and Tarleton State. (Tarleton State? That sounds more like some private school for incorrigible British youth.)

Manning got into the starting lineup only after he replaced Harris. Then Harris returned after Pro Bowl strong safety Mike Brown got hurt and Todd Johnson was benched.

Yeah, these are the guys you want back there to read the many look-offs, glances and other head games that Peyton Manning produces during a game.

"We're confident in those guys, no question," Bears cornerback Charles Tillman said. "Really, we've had Mike around all season, even after he got hurt, helping those guys out. Mike was in the film room watching even after he was done. … He'd sit in there and say, 'I'd maybe play it this way' when he saw something that the guys weren't used to."

Brown was also at practice, helping as much as he could as the season wore on. Still, that's a far cry from being on the field, and Smith knows that.

Of course, many of the questions for Smith on Sunday night were of the softball variety. Was he going to let his players have a little time to enjoy the sultry South Florida weather in January? Did he remember the last time he yelled at a player? Was he proud to be representing Big Sandy, Texas, where he led the Wildcats to three state titles in high school and began his coaching career?

Yes, the players will be allowed to act like adult men of freewill for a night. No, he couldn't recall the last time he raised his voice but thought linebacker Brian Urlacher would remember. And yes, he was certainly happy to be representing Big Sandy.

But the real issues for Smith this week have to do with what he was reading on the plane. Can his defense stop Peyton Manning, wide receivers Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison, tight end Dallas Clark and running back Joseph Addai?

More specifically, will the vast experience of most of those players (Manning and Harrison have spent nine years together) overwhelm the relative inexperience of Danieal Manning and Chris Harris?

That's the kind of question that makes a coach uncomfortable.

"Those guys know what they're up against and they're up for the challenge," Smith said bravely. Then, seemingly sensing that his answer was inadequate, Smith hurriedly said, "Our defensive line will have something to say about that."

We'll see next Sunday.

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