LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- He stumbled on the point, but conveyed it perfectly.
Asked to go into the forbidden territory of football mortality, Bears linebacker Lance Briggs squeezed a lectern with both hands and shook his head, almost condescendingly.
“Excuse me?” he asked, smiling. “I don’t feel a day younger than 21 right now.”
Bad execution on Briggs’ part, for sure. But both he and fellow linebacker Brian Urlacher made their points clear Thursday: they’re not by pondering the supposedly aging defense’s window for stardom, or counting down the days remaining in their own careers. They’re simply enjoying competing together again, finally.
The duo will line up alongside one another Sunday for the first time in a regular-season outing in 364 days, when the Bears meet the Lions at Soldier field.
“We just enjoy it,” Urlacher said. “We’ve been together a long time. I’m the old guy in the room now; have been for a while. But we don’t talk about the windows closing or how much longer we’re going to play together, nothing like that. We just enjoy the time we have and try to play as good as we can.”
Together, they’ve proven to be a formidable pair over the past seven seasons. They’ve combined for 1901 tackles over that span to go with 27.5 sacks for 163 lost yards, in addition to gobbling up 32 turnovers through interceptions and fumble recoveries.
“Every game I’ve coached here, those two have been our two marquee linebackers; Pro Bowlers,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “I have a lot of faith in what they can do from the sense of [us having] a lot more confidence in what we can do with both of them on the field.”
With a combined 11 Pro Bowls between them, Briggs and Urlacher rank in the franchise annals as two of just 14 Bears to be named to the league’s annual all-star game on at least five occasions. So they’ve etched their names in the record books.
Urlacher said he’s no longer interested in individual accomplishments, “I’m trying to win games. That’s all I really worry about.” Briggs, meanwhile, isn’t counting, but believes he and Urlacher have plenty of time left together.
“I don’t know how long a guy can or can’t play,” he said. “When guys hit a certain age, they can start to get on the down side of things, but I’m out there every day with guys. In some cases, maybe that’s true. But the guys I’ve been around -- outside of some aches and pains -- seem fine. I don’t know about the window. I’m sure our days are numbered. Everybody’s days are numbered. But as far as playing the game, I don’t see it anytime soon.”
That’s welcome news for the defense, which is struggling to regain its 2006 Super Bowl swagger. The duo suffered setbacks in back-to-back preseason outings, with Urlacher sustaining a calf injury against the Raiders, and Briggs going down with an ankle injury seven days later against the Arizona Cardinals.
Both insist they’re fine headed into the opener, and appear poised to resume roles as playmaking catalysts. The defense desperately need their leadership, considering the unit allowed an average of six points in the opening quarter as opponents outscored the club 96-36 last season in the first quarter of games.
So it’s important for the unit to start fast against the Lions. To make that happen, the defense needs to embrace the intense trust, which is shared between Urlacher and Briggs, at every position.
“Football is a major team sport, but within this team sport, there are a lot of individual battles,” Briggs explained. “We have to count on each other to win those individual battles. We could have every man in a gap to stop a run, and [if] one man gets cut [blocked], the back is going to try to crease. You can’t allow yourself to be cut. When it happens, you need to be the first man to stand up and say it was me. We can deal with that. It’s mistake after mistake, [and] now we have to make plays to make up for the mistakes. That’s where you get killed. Now you’ve got guys trying to do more than their job.”
That’s when disaster strikes.
Urlacher said “it’s not the end of the world” if the Bears drop Sunday’s contest to the Lions. But don’t think for a second anyone in the locker room at Halas Hall is taking Sunday’s contest lightly, especially Urlacher, who Briggs described as “definitely hungry.” Urlacher made light of that assessment, saying “I just ate, man. I feel good right now.”
Jokes aside, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli considers the decorated past of his two best linebackers valuable currency in convincing the younger players to buy into the system. Briggs described working with Marinelli as “special”, while Urlacher insists the defensive coordinator wants the unit to arrive at the ball “angry”.
Marinelli expressed excitement about watching Urlacher and Briggs together again on the field.
“Oh yeah, they’ve done it,” Marinelli said. “Their veteran presence is really important to this defense. Now it’s [about them] stepping up and playing at the high level we want.”