All-Pro DE Peppers adds spice to Bears' defense

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- For three years, he had an up-close view of Julius Peppers, and there are still times Chris Harris can't believe his eyes.

Maybe it's a hit. Maybe it's a burst of speed. Maybe it's both.

"I still find myself in practice, like, wow," said Harris, a safety in his second go-around with the Bears after three seasons in Carolina. "Every once in a while, just saying, 'Wow.'"

The Bears certainly were going for the wow factor when they lured the five-time Pro Bowl defensive end away from Carolina with a six-year deal worth potentially $91.5 million, including $42 million guaranteed. No team made a bigger move in free agency. And, maybe, no team needed one more than Chicago.

The Bears went 7-9 and missed the playoffs for the third straight year, leaving many fans calling for coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo to be fired. Now, with Peppers, they're banking on a turnaround, starting with this week's opener against Detroit.

They believe that Peppers will help take the load off Tommie Harris up front -- and the safeties in back -- simply because he'll draw the double team and get in the quarterback's mask.

"I don't really look at it that way," Peppers said. "I look at it as everybody has a job to do, and if everybody does their job, then we're going to be good. If not, then it's not going to work. It's not just one person. It's not just me and (Brian Urlacher) or me and Lance (Briggs). It's a collective effort, and we all have to perform our responsibilities. And once we take care of that, we'll be fine."

Even so, the Bears are counting on Peppers to boost a once-dominant defense that ranked 17th overall and tied for 13th in sacks with 35. He's third in the NFL with 81 sacks since debuting in 2002, behind only Jason Taylor (88) and Dwight Freeney (84), including 10½ last season.

Now he's anchoring a defense that has no shortage of past Pro Bowl players but a long list of questions heading into what could be a critical season for the franchise.

Harris, a three-time Pro Bowl pick, has been limited by knee and hamstring problems in recent seasons. His durability is in question, as is Brian Urlacher's after a season-ending wrist injury in last year's opener.

"I think he's definitely hungry," Briggs said, referring to Urlacher, on Thursday.

Well, maybe not.

"I just ate. I feel good right now," Urlacher said, smiling. "I'm excited. It's been a long offseason, a long preseason. I'm really rested right now. I'm just excited to see how good we're going to be, for us to go out there and get a chance to prove what we've done in the offseason and what we've put in."

He's particularly interested in seeing this defense with Peppers, how his arrival changes the mix. Urlacher, Harris and Briggs have played together since 2004, leading the Bears to the playoffs in 2005 and the Super Bowl the following year.

They're not young. The miles are adding up.

"We don't talk about the windows closing, how much longer we're going to play," Urlacher said.

But Peppers should help keep it propped open a little longer.

"He's a great athlete," Urlacher said. "He's a phenomenal football player. He knows things out there. He sees things happen before they happen. And it's going to be fun to play behind him."

Peppers insists he doesn't feel any added pressure, yet he realizes the spotlight is on him. He signed that big contract and left his home state after two years of tense contract negotiations with the Panthers.

He's in new territory, yet he's expected to help lead the way for a franchise that fell off track the past few years. He's not outspoken, not a loud personality, yet he embraces his role.

"There are a lot of ways to lead," Peppers said. "I have my way of leading and the guys respect it. They want to follow."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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