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Bears Bank on Defense (1 Viewer)


Bears Bank on Stout Defense


The Chicago Bears' defense chose rest over laurels in the final weekend of the NFL regular season, losing their No. 1 ranking when the regulars sat out the last three quarters of the meaningless Jan. 1 game against the Minnesota Vikings. No asterisk requested or required.

"We know, just like everybody in the league knows, who the best defense is," Bears defensive end Alex Brown says.

The Carolina Panthers, who visit Soldier Field for the second time in eight weeks in Sunday's NFC divisional playoff game, probably don't need convincing. Chicago's 13-3 victory against the Panthers on Nov. 20 is the game that gave the rising Bears credibility throughout the NFL and moved thoughts of a Super Bowl appearance from fantasy to possibility.

That ended a six-game winning streak for the Panthers, who finished the regular season at 11-5.

"That's when I was kind of convinced we do have something special" on defense, says end Adewale Ogunleye (pronounced add-uh-WALL-ay oh-GOON-lay-eh), who had three of the defensive line's eight sacks of Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme. Chicago also forced three fumbles (two recovered by Carolina) and intercepted two passes.

The NFC North champions (11-5) expect a tougher game against the team that was a preseason choice to represent the conference in the Super Bowl and is playing as well as it did two years ago when it made the championship game.

The Bears held the Panthers to 55 yards rushing and kept Steve Smith, the NFL's leading yardage receiver, out of the end zone in the November game despite his 14 catches for 169 yards.

The victory was Chicago's sixth in a row, but it was the first against a playoff-bound opponent and legitimized the Bears' contender status.

"A lot of people thought Carolina was going to come in and have their way with us," says strong safety Mike Brown, one of five Bears defensive players going to the Pro Bowl. "After that game is when people realized we're a good football team."

Start of a New Defensive Reign?

Even with the second unit's performance in the New Year's Day 34-10 loss in Minnesota, the defense finished second in the NFL in yardage allowed per game and gave up the fewest points in the league (202). It's the Bears' highest defensive finish since 1988, the last year in the remarkable stretch for the team that won 52 regular-season games in four years and a Super Bowl championship (1985 season).

That fabled "46" defense ranked first or second in the NFL for five consecutive years beginning in 1984, which makes any comparison with the 2005 team premature. But this group has the potential to be much more than a one-year wonder. Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, a member of the '85 Bears, says the units compare favorably.

"It's an aggressive style of football," Rivera says. "The biggest difference is the age. We're probably one of the youngest groups in the NFL."

The average age of the starting defense is only 25; average years of NFL experience only 3?. Mike Brown (27) and NFL defensive player of the year Brian Urlacher (27) are the only starting holdovers from the 2001 playoff team.

Under NFL coach of the year Lovie Smith's system, the Bears attack from all positions in the front seven. The 2001 team concentrated on stuffing the run with huge tackles - 365-pound Ted Washington and 343-pound Keith Traylor- and keeping blockers off Urlacher and the other linebackers.

The operative word in this defense is "downhill," as in charging full-speed to make plays in the opposition's backfield.

"We have a young defense, but man, they can play," says 10th-year receiver Muhsin Muhammad, a former Panther signed as a free agent in the offseason. "Those guys fly around."

"It's fun to watch them," adds former coach Mike Ditka, who shows rarely seen diplomacy when asked to compare the defense with his Super Bowl crew. "Urlacher is one of the best middle linebackers I've seen."

Urlacher is a fitting symbol for the defense. Like the entire unit, he bounced back from an injury-plagued 2004 in which The Sporting News cited him as the most overrated player in the league.

He was one of several players hurt last year, which hampered Lovie Smith's efforts in his first season.

"We've got all our people here," Rivera says of the difference. "At one point last year, I think we were minus five starters."

This year, Urlacher recorded 171 tackles, according to coaches' film reviews, in 15 games (excluding the cameo appearance against the Vikings) and registered six sacks, his most since 2001.

"This whole season was a blessing," Urlacher told reporters in a conference call after winning The Associated Press defensive player of the year award last week. "To go through what I went through last year, it was just so frustrating. ... I was mad when (the overrated tag) came out, frustrated, but the people who know me - my teammates, the organization - know what type of player I am."

Bad Memories of Last Playoffs

Although the city is abuzz with the 20th anniversary of the Super Bowl XX Bears, management is focusing on more recent history this week - the Bears' 33-19 playoff loss to Philadelphia after the 13-3 regular season in 2001.

"I didn't like how we ended that '01 season. We got beat. It made us look weak, and I've got that taste in my mouth still," general manager Jerry Angelo says. "We just didn't look like we were ready to play. We got beat in our own backyard and got our butts kicked."

Offensively, the Bears are a different team from their first game against Carolina. Quarterback Rex Grossman has returned from a broken ankle to add a much-needed spark to the passing game.

Angelo carried Grossman on the roster all year in the hope he might return from the preseason injury, saying he never seriously considered shutting down his season by moving him to injured reserve.

"It's just too hard to find a quarterback," Angelo says. "When you think you've got one, if there was any ray of hope, we were going to play the string out."

01/11/2006 07:18


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