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Thursday, September 15, 2011
The (heavy) heart of Bears' defense

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Brian Urlacher returned to Chicago Bears practice Thursday, taking his status as civic ubermensch to a new level.

The consummate linebacker in the city of linebackers, Urlacher's legend as the strong, silent, man's man grew even stronger as he perseveres through tragedy following the sudden loss of his mother. His pain is universal.

The funeral for Urlacher's mother, Lavoyda Lenard, is Saturday in Lovington, N.M. No. 54 will start at middle linebacker against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday in the thunderous din of the Louisiana Superdome. His story, a human story, will be the story of the day.

"Everyone in the country is sending out condolences and prayers to him and his family," teammate Lance Briggs said.

As reporters and football players struggled to talk gamely about Urlacher's familiar, human situation, we were left with clichés and bromides about playing through pain and keeping busy, as we futilely tried to gauge how emotion and pain and football could coalesce into a tidy storyline. One thing we couldn't come out and say is that this difficult time for Urlacher could have the positive result of the Bears' defense coming out more fired up, in honor of its leader, this Sunday in New Orleans. The Saints are a tough cover at home, which is why they are 7-point favorites over a seemingly impressive Bears team. Chicago needs all the positive mojo it can muster if it wants to come away with a victory.

But that kind of "Win one for 'Lach" opportunism story is for the postgame locker room if the Bears can beat the Saints.

Urlacher
Brian Urlacher, the Bears' defensive leader, returned a fumble for a touchdown in Week 1.

Still, I have no doubt the Bears will want to win for their leader, even more than they do on any given Sunday. Urlacher's image as team leader, and team Superman, is not a media creation.

More importantly, he's still got that "it" factor on the field. Last week he had a horizontal interception and a recovered fumble for a touchdown in the team's 30-12 win over the Atlanta Falcons.

"Brian played lights-out football," Briggs said, adding, "I had the best front-row seat anyone could have."

"Like I say, he's got a Ph.D. in the system and it shows," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said.

The Bears need vintage Urlacher on Sunday, and I have a feeling he's going to play possessed, like Brett Favre did in 2003 against Oakland on the day after his father's death. It's trite, but so are a lot of televised moments.

Urlacher doesn't want the attention to be on him, but it's inevitable. Once the made-for-TV angle dies down, the real story is if -- and how -- the Bears can out-scheme Drew Brees and the Saints and whether or not they can win another game even if they give up another 386 yards on offense, like they did last week.

"As long as they ain't scoring, it's good," nickelback D.J. Moore said. "If you looked at the yards, you'd think the score would be different. But as long as there's no touchdowns ..."

The Bears caused three turnovers against the Falcons, but gave up some big plays, including a 53-yard gain by Michael Turner, who picked up 100 yards total. Matt Ryan threw for 319 yards, impressive if not for his zero touchdowns.

It was a classic Bears defensive game -- bend but don't break, create and capitalize on turnovers, tighten up in the red zone. Still, there's plenty to improve upon, several Bears said.

"I'm sure they'll look at the things there [that] were successful last week, how Atlanta moved the ball and try to capitalize," Briggs said.

Offense was the story league-wide last week, as 14 quarterbacks threw for at least 300 yards, with Tom Brady eclipsing 500 and three others 400, including Brees, who threw for 419 yards and three touchdowns and nearly orchestrated a game-tying touchdown against the Green Bay Packers on opening night.

"The league wants you to have 300-, 400-yard passing games," Moore said. "It was just a good week."

But it wasn't just bombs away in Week 1. For example, the Bears' two biggest pass plays were screens that turned into big gains: Matt Forte's 56-yard scoring catch and Devin Hester's 54-yard YAC (yards after catch) west-east scamper. Those kinds of plays are what the Bears' defense is trying to avoid this week against Brees, who can pick apart a secondary like few others. That's why the defensive line needs to have another impressive game, and that's why the linebackers and defensive backs need to wrap up. Simple technique stuff, nothing flashy.

"Not letting them throw short routes and turning it into big ones," Moore said.

Moore should get a lot of work this week. The Bears expect to play a lot of nickel against the pass-happy Saints. Safety Chris Harris is nursing a sore hamstring and newcomer Brandon Meriweather could play a major role.

The Bears will have to change up some calls to try to confuse their old teammate Olin Kreutz. Most of the team is looking forward to competing against the hard-nosed center.

"I'm sure words will be exchanged, some good contact, you know," Briggs said. "Maybe there will be some blows. But if there's blows exchanged, hopefully I'm giving them and not receiving them."

Moore summarized Sunday's game best.

"We know we're good on defense and honestly, we know they're good on offense," he said. "We've got to wait to the game to see what happens."

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.