Bears' defense right from the start
Veterans shine, but play of young players could complete picture of great D
CHICAGO -- Roy Williams didn't seem too upset about the groin injury that forced him to the sideline late in Sunday's game. Or if he was, the Chicago Bears' new receiver took solace in something with which every red-blooded football fan in American can relate.
"That's my fantasy defense this week," Williams said of Brian Urlacher and the gang. "I started them."
No one had to ask if he would start them again next week.
In thoroughly dismantling an Atlanta Falcons' offense, thought to be one of the best in the league, en route to a 30-12 Chicago victory, the Bears' defense made clear to anyone who may have wondered that it is capable of once again carrying this team a long way.
That the Bears' offense held its own -- and the Falcons to just two field goals -- only figures to further embolden a group that doesn't need much propping up, despite repeated reminders of its advancing age.
Tackle Anthony Adams, one of six over-30 defensive starters, was presumably being facetious when he chose to compare Urlacher, the 33-year-old star of Sunday's game, to his college football coach.
"They say the same thing about Coach Paterno," Adams said of the 84-year-old Penn State coach. "Coach Paterno may have 'Lach' by 10 years, but he's still alive and kicking, he's still sharp. When I go to Penn State, he asks me about my wife, knows all my kids' names, my mom's name. It's the same with Urlacher."
Both sharp and agile, Urlacher broke Hall of Famer Bill George's record for Bears linebackers Sunday with his 19th career interception -- on a full layout and going to his left, no less -- in the first quarter.
"It would have been really impressive if he had stayed on his feet and got some yards, though," Adams said.
"Did you see how slow that touchdown was?" Adams cracked. "Oh my god, he should have lateralled it to a defensive lineman."
They kid because they can, because Urlacher's feats led to 14 Bears' points and because it was the third time in the last eight years under Lovie Smith that the defense held an opponent without an offensive touchdown in a season opener. Because the Bears sacked Matt Ryan five times and forced three turnovers in all, including a typical punch-out fumble forced by 30-year-old Charles Tillman.
But in truth, the play of the Bears' senior defensive veterans may not be the best news as the new blood should prove just as valuable for what they give the Bears both in skill and in depth. Players such as tackle Henry Melton, 24, who recorded two sacks in his first career start and had seven quarterback hits and two tackles for loss; tackle Amobi Okoye, 24, who also had a sack in his first game as a Bear; and defensive end Nick Reed, 23, another team newcomer who didn't record a tackle but sure looked good covering Jason Snelling on the Falcons' first series of the first half. The play forced Atlanta to kick a field goal, thus preserving a 10-point Bears' lead and nipping any potential Falcons' rally.
The Bears' defense wasn't perfect. Urlacher called them "decent. We can get better. We made mistakes. Our game plans are simple. We're building."
But this strong of an overall defensive effort in the opener was certainly reassuring for anyone wondering if an inactive offseason would interrupt the momentum built from last season. And the takeaways were so after a preseason schedule in which they had just had just one on an interception in the last of four games.
"It's not a good defensive game for us if we can't take the ball away," Smith said. "Normally, if you have a plus-two on the turnover ratio, you're going to win 80 percent of your games. Our players understand that. [The Falcons] weren't turning it over, we were taking the ball away. We have to keep that going."
Just as encouraging was the consistent pressure by the defensive line, which is significantly upgraded by Tommie Harris' absence and Melton's presence and was mostly unflappable against Atlanta's no-huddle.
"Just a lot of athletic ability, great power, speed and quickness," Smith said of Melton, who had 2 1/2 sacks last season after spending his rookie season of 2009 on injured reserve.
"Huge," Urlacher said of the front four. "When the other guys can get to the quarterback, we don't have to blitz anyone."
And when you have Peppers, who had two sacks to go along with his forced fumble and fumble recovery, everything just seems easier.
In the end, both offensively and defensively, Sunday was a case of big players making big plays.
"Momentum is definitely contagious, and we feed and we thrive off that," Tillman said. "Not just on defense, but it put a spark in the offense, and they went out there and were explosive."
They all were. Even Urlacher. Even on the Soldier Field turf.
"I'm not fast enough to slip," he said.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.