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MIAMI -- In training camp, Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli passed out "Monsters of the Midway" T-shirts as though, just by slipping them over their heads, his players would take on all the great virtues of defenses past.
In truth, they are not Monsters of the '85 variety, not the kind of defense that necessarily scares teams. Not with names like Henry Melton and D.J. Moore and Tim Jennings. Even the players capable of instilling fear, such as big-money free agent defensive end Julius Peppers, came into Thursday night's game against Miami lacking the sort of sack numbers that would make most believe he is having a dominating season.
"The star of this defense," Charles Tillman said simply, "is the defense."
They did what they had to do again Thursday, which was lead the Bears to their 16-0 victory over the Dolphins, their first shutout since November of 2006, a 63-game span.
|Lance Briggs and the rest of the Bears' defense shut down the Dolphins' run game Thursday night.|
They did it against a third-string quarterback taking snaps from a third-string center. Peppers had three sacks opposite a guy essentially playing with one arm. They benefited from the injury to receiver Brandon Marshall, who had three catches for 41 yards in the first half.
But they also held Miami running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams to minus-7 yards combined on four carries through three quarters. They held the Dolphins to 39 rushing yards total and one third-down conversion in 11 tries.
While the Bears' offense was doing a bang-up job in time of possession (37:51 to Miami's 22:09), they were still one play away from losing their flimsy 6-0 lead at halftime and didn't cross the goal line until two minutes remained in the third quarter.
This team needs its defense like Bristol Palin needs the Tea Party's votes on "Dancing with the Stars."
"We're trying to catch up to them," Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said. "If we can get to their level and play on their level, we're going to be a very good team in December."
Urlacher issued a not-so-subtle reminder that, despite all the teamwork, there is a reason the defense is carrying the team as is expected.
"If you look at our salary cap, that says a lot right there," he said. "We spend a lot of money on our defense and it shows on Sundays."
As well as Thursday nights on three days' rest, making it as fair as ever to say that with the addition of Peppers, a healthy Urlacher, the continued production of Briggs and an ever-improving secondary, this unit is every bit as good as the Super Bowl defense from 2006.
"I think we're better position-for-position," Urlacher said. "I think we match up well with that team. We're older but it doesn't mean we're slower. We're a little wiser now. We're athletic. The best thing about us is we're disciplined and we believe in the system."
All that stuff about staying in gaps that defensive players talk about when they don't do it. Well, when they do it, it looks a lot like this team.
"We're all carrying out our assignments, executing, counting on each other, trusting each other, and when you do that, it's hard for teams to score on you," Peppers said.
Peppers, who came into the game with two sacks on the season and found himself often having to explain himself afterward, is consistently double-teamed, freeing up someone else to come through unscathed.
And his three sacks against the Dolphins?
"It's still overrated," he said. "It's nice to get them but it's even nicer to have that goose egg and get the win. I feel like I'm doing my part. I feel like I'm helping the cause. I've been preaching that this team had great players on it before I got here. I'm happy with how it's going. It seems like we're finally jelling and we seem to get better as the season goes on."
|Danieal Manning's hit on Davone Bess was an exclamation point on a masterful defensive performance.|
The Bears hadn't won in Miami since 1997, a 36-33 victory on "Monday Night Football." They have only won twice in South Florida in the 10-game series that began in 1971. They're now 7-3, having won their third straight game -- two on the road -- in 12 days to take over sole possession of first place in the NFC North.
"We have a much better compass on who we are," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said before the game.
Who they are is an offense that is agonizingly tough to put a finger on. Who they are is a defense that is solid and dependable. And as the teeth of the Bears' schedule approaches, dependable is not a bad thing.
"Our defense hasn't changed," Urlacher said. "People know what were going to do. They know where we're going to line up, what coverage we're in. It doesn't matter. We play hard, we get 11 guys to the football. The main things we've done all season is we play harder and harder every week. We get to the football and that makes up for a lot of mistakes right there."
How much better can they be?
"As good as we want to be," said Tillman, whose first-quarter interception was the Bears' lone takeaway. "The sky's the limit for us. As long as we don't let [junk] creep in, we'll be all right."Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.