(MCT) — CHICAGO — Jon Hoke is not catching the ball for the Bears’ defensive backs, who have 11 of the team’s NFL-leading 13 interceptions.
He hasn’t turned Tim Jennings’ stone hands into Velcro mitts. He’s not setting a block for Charles Tillman to weave behind en route to the end zone on an interception return.
But he has helped the Bears defense significantly improve through five games, eliminating pressing questions the team had entering the season. No one knew how the young third-round draft picks would fare at safety, and Jennings, remember, was benched in Week 16 last season.
The Bears lead the NFL in defensive passer rating at 60.0, and the relationship between pressure on the quarterback and coverage has been easily identifiable. But last season, strong safety Major Wright might have opened his hips against two vertical routes in Dallas and exposed himself. Instead, he stayed square and broke on a Tony Romo pass for an athletic interception, his second of that game and third of the season. The defensive backs are playing with confidence, and coaching is part of that.
Jennings was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September, and Tillman was NFC Defensive Player of the Week after his interception return for a touchdown in Jacksonville, his second in two games. Free safety Chris Conte leads the defense with 35 tackles.
“It’s rewarding for all of us as coaches,” Hoke said, “just seeing them get better and coming in to make plays and help our team win.”
Hoke, 55 and in his fourth season with the Bears, is reluctant to talk about himself. He says his younger brother Brady, the head coach at Michigan, is better suited for cameras and microphones. But he has attracted attention the last two years. The Eagles interviewed Hoke for their defensive coordinator position after the 2010 season, and the Buccaneers and Vikings both asked to interview him for the same role this past offseason, with the Bucs getting permission.
“I think you have to give a coach some credit,” coach Lovie Smith said. “Jon has been a good coach since he came here. I know how he’s coaching the guys. He’s thorough, he’s a good technician. As a coach, that’s what you are trying to do — you get a product, you make it better. It’s safe to say he’s done that.”
Hoke, who played in 11 games for the Bears in 1980, is proud of how Jennings responded to adversity last season and worked to improve himself. He says all the credit goes to the player, but Hoke rode Jennings hard because he believed he would respond. He’s challenged Wright to be better in preparation, and he is.
The Bears don’t have a more animated position coach on staff. Hoke is firm and firmer when with players on the field in training camp. He’s in the facemask of Tillman, a 10-year veteran, the same way he is with an undrafted rookie free agent. It’s not always an approach that works in the NFL.
“That is the way I was raised in coaching,” said Hoke, who worked in the college ranks for 19 years before joining the Texans’ staff in 2002. “I had a guy tell me one time, and I do believe it: ‘Encourage, correct, encourage.’ ... When they come off and I am in their ear, sometimes it’s correction and sometimes it’s encouragement. It’s always in that vein, though.
“Sometimes it’s tough love. And people don’t like to hear it. It’s just human nature. We don’t want to hear those things. But we have a wonderful group of players to coach, and we’re extremely pleased with what they are doing so far.”
Hoke admits his relationship with players has “evolved probably to some degree.” Tillman was not happy when he was moved from left cornerback to the right side in 2010, Hoke’s second season. Nickel cornerback D.J. Moore admits to butting heads with the coach as a rookie in 2009.
“We got into it a lot,” Moore said. “And I was probably out of line.”
“He’s tough, but fair,” Tillman said. “Sometimes as a player, you have disagreements with a coach. I’ve had disagreements with every coach I’ve had since I’ve been here, position coaches. But I’ve had good relationships with all of them.
“He does it because he cares about us and he treats everyone the same. I don’t get any preferential treatment over Tim or Major or a practice squad guy. He’s hard on everybody. He’s consistent all the way around.”
Maybe Hoke has changed his approach a little too, now that he’s been in the NFL for 11 seasons.
“It can be a little toxic at times, you know, hard on players at times,” he said. “But I am still coaching hard. There are always different messages, different ways to bring it across.”