Bullish on Bear defense

Urlacher thinks unit is set up for long haul

Linebackers Brian Urlacher (left) and Lance Briggs lead a Bears defense that ranked second in the NFL against the rush and finished third in takeaways with 35. Linebackers Brian Urlacher (left) and Lance Briggs lead a Bears defense that ranked second in the NFL against the rush and finished third in takeaways with 35. (Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)
By Andrew Seligman
Associated Press / January 14, 2011

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Brian Urlacher looked at the talent on the roster and saw no reason why the Chicago Bears would miss the postseason for a fourth straight year.

Well, the drought’s over and he thinks there won’t be another dry spell.

“No, not at all,’’ Urlacher said. “I think if we get a couple guys back, we’re set up for a while. If you look at our team, depth-wise, if we get Olin [Kreutz] back and a couple other guys, we have Jay [Cutler] and Pep [Julius Peppers] signed for a while, so I think we’ll be set up. It would be good if we go out there and prove it for a while. Talent-wise, we’re going to be good for a while.’’

The Bears will host the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in a divisional playoff game after winning the NFC North and earning a first-round bye. Not since the 2006 team made the Super Bowl had the Bears been to the postseason, and one big reason they’re finally back is the guys doing the tackling.

Not quite as ferocious as the old Monsters of the Midway, the defense has ranked among the NFL’s stingiest all season after several mediocre years. Urlacher said this group is as good as the one that led runs to the postseason in 2005 and ’06.

“Talent-wise, this defense is up there,’’ he said. “Our corners are good. We’ve played well at linebacker. We rotate a lot of guys. We’re deep . . . Talent-wise and athletic-wise, we’re up there.’’

The numbers back him up.

The Bears ranked ninth overall on defense, second against the rush and tied for third with 35 takeaways. Opposing offenses managed just 256 points (16 per game), fourth fewest in the NFL, and the 14 passing touchdowns allowed by Chicago was the league’s second-lowest total.

Monsters of the Midway? Not quite.

Then again, the Bears have never resembled the bone-crushing defenses of old in their seven seasons under coach Lovie Smith. They were built on speed and technique and likely to bend but not break even when they were at their best. And in recent seasons, they were not at their best.

Injuries robbed defensive tackle Tommie Harris of his Pro Bowl skills and turned Urlacher into a question mark. Back and neck problems had limited him in recent years, and just when it looked as though he might be back to his old havoc-wreaking ways, he sustained a season-ending wrist injury in the opener at Green Bay in 2009.

That set a bad tone, and the Bears wound up going 7-9 for the second time in three years, leaving many fans calling for Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo to be fired.

They stuck around, but the Bears didn’t stand pat.

They signed Peppers to a six-year deal potentially worth $91.5 million, hoping the Pro Bowl defensive end could shake up a defense that ranked 17th overall and boost a struggling line. Never mind that he finished with eight sacks and missed double digits for just the third time in nine seasons. The move paid off in a big way.

Peppers often draws two or three blockers, makes offensive linemen jittery, and when he’s not getting to the quarterback he’s clogging running lanes.

In that sense, he’s even better than Urlacher thought. But as important as Peppers’s arrival was, so was the return of the man who had anchored the defense.

The Bears simply weren’t the same without Urlacher in the middle.

“The guys that filled in for him did a great job, but they’re no Urlacher,’’ linebacker Lance Briggs said. “Having him back is huge. Having the pieces that we have for this puzzle are huge, and he’s the main piece.’’

Those other pieces have filled big spots.

Cornerback D.J. Moore has had his moments, such as when he picked off two passes in a win over Dallas in September. Linebacker Brian Iwuh had 12 tackles in a 23-20 loss to Seattle in October while filling in for the injured Briggs.

This time, Briggs is healthy. And the Bears expect a better defensive effort.

They did not sack Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in that game, nor did they pick off a pass or recover a fumble.

“We’ve done some good things,’’ defensive end Israel Idonije said. “The best part about it is we still have left some plays on the field. There’s still room for us to really take a big step in these playoffs and show another level of play.’’

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