With Bears veteran starting CB Prince Amukamara unable to practice in Week 14 with a hamstring injury he suffered on Thanksgiving, the Bears will almost certainly require the next man up in their secondary Thursday night in a must-win spot at Soldier Field vs. the Dallas Cowboys' No. 1-rated passing attack.
Chicago already this season has weathered major injuries in the first two levels of its defense to Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan, respectively, and maintained one of the top units in the league. However, this will be the Bears' first time in 2019 playing without one of their five starters in the secondary, raising the question of who exactly will be the next man up and how the unit responds vs. Dallas' dangerous downfield passing game.
Amukamara struggled early on in the Thanksgiving victory in Detroit to cover Lions speedy wideout Kenny Golladay but eventually tightened up, making five tackles — including a big solo stop on a key third-and-long — and an equally big pass breakup. Despite not playing quite as well this season as he did in a career year in 2018, Amukamara has largely been a dependable cover man who gets targeted a lot playing opposite Kyle Fuller.
The Bears have enviable depth throughout their defense, but their reserve corners remain largely unproven. Though Matt Nagy wouldn't confirm the contingency plan for Amukamara, it says here to expect rock-solid nickel Buster Skrine to line up at right corner across from Fuller in base, with second-year player Kevin Toliver playing the boundary while Skrine moves over the slot in sub packages.
Skrine has been even better than advertised in his first season with the Bears on a three-year, $16.5 million deal. His two forced fumbles trail only Khalil Mack for the team lead, and the athletic journeyman Skrine has been far more disciplined than he was over his four-year Jets tenure, when he led Gang Green in penalties. Moreover, Skrine has been stingier in coverage than predecessor Bryce Callahan, who took more money to follow former Bears coordinator Vic Fangio to Denver but didn't appear in a game this season because of a chronic foot injury.
Skrine has been durable, he's been dependable and he's been a fast study as one of the newcomers in a star-studded secondary.
"Buster is a guy, first of all he has been in this league a long time. So when you’re in the league and you have different coordinators, you understand the lingo of these different style defenses and terminologies," Nagy said Monday. "He has trust in himself and being able to do it and we saw that going – I know I’ve seen it going against him for years and years. He just has the personality to be able to adapt to different coaching styles, different schemes. ... So there is a confidence level and a trust level that we have as coaches with him playing that slot."
But Skrine has played almost exclusively in the slot so far this season, and though he has some previous boundary experience, it'll be interesting to see whether the Bears trust the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder to hold up against Dallas' big and dynamic outside receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, both measuring in over 6-1 and 200 pounds.
It's possible the Bears prefer Toliver, who's 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds and acquitted himself well in an early spot start for Amukamara as an undrafted rookie last season. He's shown his physicality mostly on special teams in Year 2, but it was clear in the offseason program that a new defensive staff led by Chuck Pagano valued the former five-star recruit out of LSU.
"That's one of those deals where if Prince can't go or whoever on the team can't, we feel like we have pretty good depth," Nagy said.