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TELANDER: Brian Urlacher still centerpiece of great Bears defense

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Updated: December 3, 2012 6:50AM



Urlacher the linebacker.

The words rhyme, folks.

It’s not ‘‘Ur-locker’’; it’s ‘‘Ur-lacker.’’ At least that’s what Brian told us way back in 2000, when he was a rookie with the Bears. And it’s too late to change now.

It’s too late for a lot of things to change in the middle linebacker’s career. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Everybody knows Urlacher is an old vet at 34, coming off a long-rehabbed knee injury, and he can’t run like the Urlacher of yore.

You will not, for instance, be seeing No. 54 scoop up a fumble and return it 90 yards for a touchdown as he did against the Falcons more than a decade ago.

You will not see him make 159 solo tackles, 214 total, as he did back in 2002. You won’t see him get five interceptions and return one 85 yards as he did in 2007. You probably won’t see him get many more sacks in his career. Maybe none at all. Indeed, he has only four sacks in his last five seasons, and none since 2010.

But just try thinking of the Bears’ defense without Urlacher in the middle, hollering out signals and pointing to holes as the opposing offense begins its count. It’s hard to do. Nearly impossible.

Along with linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman, Urlacher forms the guts of an attacking defense we have known for so long that we almost assuredly take it for granted.

What a defense it has been since Lovie Smith came in as the coach in 2004 and rode those three players to the max. Since that season, the Bears have been at or near the top in many key defensive stats. They are ranked first or second in the NFL in takeaways, interceptions, opponents’ fumbles recovered, forced three-and-out drives, third-down percentage, yards per pass attempt and red-zone scoring efficiency.

Briggs and Tillman seemingly have gotten better with age, having recently had consecutive games in which they each returned an interception for a touchdown, an NFL record for teammates.

But there is just something about Urlacher that makes him stand out. Part of it is his longevity — this is his 13th NFL season (Briggs and Tillman are in their 10th) — part of it is his size — 6-4, 260 — and part of it is simply the position he plays.

Middle linebacker.

On the Bears.

Think Bill George, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and the Hall of Fame. Chicago takes that MLB spot very seriously, far more so than, say, wide receiver or nose tackle.

Urlacher has the third-most starts of any player in Bears history, and if he starts every game this season and the opener next season, he will pass Walter Payton for the most starts with 185.

Urlacher is modest, and some critics might say he should be. They long charged that he can’t get off blocks like Ray Lewis, can’t rip people’s heads off like Butkus, can’t sack like, oh, Shawne Merriman did.

But Urlacher is simply a player, a leader who sniffs out sets and schemes before they become obvious to others. He is a limited ballplayer these days, and that can’t be helped.

Ask him about his knee Thursday afternoon at Halas Hall, and he says, ‘‘I’m getting better every week.’’ But that, he acknowledges, is just from being back in action after missing almost all of training camp.

‘‘I lost a lot of time during training camp,’’ he says, ‘‘and you don’t realize how rusty you get. So the more plays I see, the better I’ll get.’’

But as to being 100 percent?

‘‘Yeah, I’m there,’’ he says. ‘‘As close as I’m gonna get.’’

Which means 100 percent is now an age-related 90 percent, and it will go down from there.

Someday it will be over for No. 54 here on the field, but until then, it’s good to see him at any percent. Still doing what he does.



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