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Urlacher, defense need to lead charge if Bears are to rebound

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Brian Urlacher took exception to the critical comments recently issued by Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, but the former Bears great was simply pointing out the elephant in the room.

The Bears have been one of the league's biggest disappointments over the past three years. For that to change, the pressure falls squarely on the defense.

While defense has traditionally been the mantra in the Windy City, Jay Cutler's arrival last season gave the Bears their first franchise quarterback since Jim McMahon, and seemingly changed the identity of the organization.

Cutler was expected to lift the Bears into contention on the strength of his right arm, but the former Pro Bowler threw a league-high 26 interceptions as the team went 7-9. The notion of the offense leading a postseason charge is unfamiliar ground for a franchise that has housed legendary defenders like Dick Butkus, Dan Hampton and Mike Singletary.

Those Hall of Famers set the standard for the way that defense is to be played in Chicago, and now Urlacher must rejuvenate a unit that has fallen from the ranks of the elite.

The Bears went to Super Bowl XLI on the heels of a dominant defense that overwhelmed opponents with its speed and ferocity. Chicago ranked fifth in total defense that season and tied for eighth in sacks. Additionally, the unit led the league in takeaways, which frequently provided points and prime field position.

Since that stellar season, Chicago's defense has ranked 28th, 21st and 17th, and it's not a coincidence that the team has failed to make the playoffs during that span.

While some of the decline can be attributed to the surprising dismissal of coordinator Ron Rivera after the team's Super Bowl run, the host of injuries and inconsistent play from the front seven has prevented the defense from reaching its full potential.

The defensive line has been soft against the run, and its inability to force long-yardage situations has kept the team from ratcheting up the pressure against opponents.

Last season, the Bears surrendered an average of 126.4 rushing yards per game (23rd in the league) and gave up 4.3 yards a carry. While those numbers aren't startling on the surface, they underscore the point that opponents repeatedly found themselves in favorable situations on second and third down. Compounding matters, the Bears were unable to muster a pass rush that could disrupt opponents' timing on quick-rhythm throws used in those situations.

Although the defensive line generated 24 sacks a season ago, the unit didn't dominate at the level needed to make the team's Tampa 2 scheme thrive.

However, the Bears have made several major changes that should bring the bite back to their defense.

First, Rod Marinelli will serve as the team's defensive coordinator, duties coach Lovie Smith handled last season. Even though the switch won't result in a change in scheme, the presence of a former defensive line coach at the play-caller position will undoubtedly place a greater emphasis on the front four in the game plan.

Marinelli, who put in 10 years as a defensive line coach before spending three seasons as the head coach of the Detroit Lions, is regarded as one of the game's best teachers of line play. His insistence on maximum effort will result in more players flying around after the ball. Given the impact that gang tackling has on creating turnovers, the Bears could return to their former ways.

Still, a play-caller is only as good as the talent at his disposal. With that in mind, the Bears upgraded at several key areas on defense.

Chicago spent big money on five-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers at the outset of free agency. The ultra-athletic defensive end has 81 career sacks and has reached double-digit totals six times in his eight-year career. While his detractors have taken him to task for failing to put forth exceptional effort at all times, his numbers suggest he's one of the game's premier pass rushers.

Given the fact that the Bears haven't had a player amass 10 or more sacks in a season since going to the Super Bowl, Peppers' presence on the edge will add some spice to their front line.

With Peppers capable of playing left or right end, Marinelli has the ability to move around his top rusher to attack favorable matchups on a down-by-down basis.

Adding Peppers should also help defensive tackle Tommie Harris return to prominence. Once regarded as one of the most disruptive players in the league, Harris played well below that standard last season. He's coming off a career-low 2.5 sacks, and his inability to make an impact was shocking for a player that went to three straight Pro Bowls from 2005-2007.

Playing alongside Peppers, who will frequently attract double teams, Harris will face single blocking for the first time in years. That should lead to a spike in Harris' production and more disruptive plays.

With the front four rebuilt and seemingly ready to dominate, the Bears could see a revived Urlacher. The team missed him dearly after he was lost for the season with a dislocated wrist in Week 1.

Urlacher is the quintessential middle linebacker for the team's scheme because of his speed and athleticism. He possesses the rare ability to run with fleet-footed tight ends and receivers down the seam, while also having the size to punish running backs. A naturally instinctive player, Urlacher has a knack for coming up with turnovers at key moments.

Urlacher earned Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2005 and could make another push at the award now that he's healthy and playing alongside a talented crew of linebackers in five-time Pro Bowler Lance Briggs and Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Given the presence of high-powered offenses in Green Bay and Minnesota, Chicago has to live up to its Monsters of the Midway moniker if it is to reclaim its spot at the top of the NFC North. If not, criticism from former players will be the least of the team's worries.

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