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Back in the middle

Brian Urlacher is up to his old tricks, playing at a Pro Bowl level for the first-place Bears

By Andrew Seligman / Associated Press

POSTED:


LAKE FOREST, Ill. » It didn't take too long for Brian Urlacher's concerns to disappear. By the end of training camp, they were gone.

Healthy and rejuvenated, Urlacher is back to playing at a high level for the Bears after missing almost all of last season with a wrist injury. At 8-3 and with the NFC North lead heading into tomorrow's game at Detroit, Chicago is pushing to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2006 team's Super Bowl run.

"I feel really good," Urlacher said.

And he's backing it up on the field.

He broke Mike Singletary's career franchise record for tackles two weeks ago. He has 1,499 overall, including a team-leading 89 this season. He also leads the Bears with nine tackles for loss and has 2 1/2 sacks, an interception, seven passes defended, a forced fumble and two recoveries.

He's been credited with 10 or more tackles in three of the past four games and five times in all, not bad for a guy who'd been limited by injuries.

"He's got a time machine somewhere because he dialed it back three or four years, and he's playing at a really high level," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. "I don't know if there's a middle linebacker playing at a higher level in the NFL."

That's quite a statement considering one of the biggest questions surrounding the Bears was whether Urlacher, at age 32, could approach the form that carried him to six Pro Bowls.

He had been bothered by neck and back problems in recent years. And just when it appeared he was healthy again, he suffered another injury in last season's opener at Green Bay. Only this time, it was a dislocated right wrist.

He was injured tackling Ryan Grant in the first quarter and needed season-ending surgery, spoiling what was shaping up as a promising start.

Urlacher had lowered his shoulder and plowed over Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers early in that game. He was, as defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli put it, playing "lights out."

And then, in a flash, he was finished for the season.

That set a bad tone for the Bears, who wound up finishing 7-9 for the second time in three years. Team president Ted Phillips issued what many took as a win-or-else mandate for coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo, and the Bears went shopping in the offseason.

They revamped their coaching staff and made several big additions to the roster.

The most notable was Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, and he's paid off in a big way for a defense that's performing like it's 2006 again.

"I think we're better than that defense at this point, but we're different," Urlacher said.

Only the Packers have allowed fewer points than the Bears, who are holding opponents to 15.6 on average, and the defense ranks fourth overall at 300.2 yards a game.

As important as Peppers has been, the return of a healthy Urlacher can't be overstated. In the land of Singletary and Dick Butkus, Urlacher again is making the case that he at least belongs in the discussion with the Bears' great middle linebackers.

"He's been all over the field making plays, back to his old self," safety Chris Harris said. "He's the leader on this team."

Urlacher said the time off helped, in a strange way. It allowed him to heal, recharge. Even so, when he showed up for training camp, he was a little unsure. He hadn't hit anybody at full speed or in pads since that Green Bay game, but those concerns quickly went away.

"I wasn't worried about my wrist after the first couple days of training camp," Urlacher said. "I felt pretty good about it, and the rest of my body felt great. So I didn't have any issues coming out of training camp."

He praised coach Lovie Smith, who is often criticized for running easy practices. Players argue that schedule helps keep them healthy.

"You're going to get banged up during the season, but for the most part, the way he does practice gives us a chance to maintain our health," Urlacher said. "I started doing different things, also, to try to maintain my health and it seems to be working for me."

He wouldn't specify what changes he made, but the results are looking awfully familiar.

"What the guy can do, it's amazing," Marinelli said. "We all know what type of player he is. That's obvious. But to see this guy leading a group of men -- how smart, how competitive, how poised he is -- that amazes me. ... Those intangible things are really special."

 

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NFL STANDINGS

AMERICAN CONFERENCE
East W L T Pct PF PA
New England 9 2 0 .818 334 266
N.Y. Jets 9 2 0 .818 264 187
Miami 6 5 0 .545 205 225
Buffalo 2 9 0 .182 229 295
South W L T Pct PF PA
Indianapolis 6 5 0 .545 282 252
Jacksonville 6 5 0 .545 240 294
Tennessee 5 6 0 .455 257 218
Houston 5 7 0 .417 288 321
North W L T Pct PF PA
Baltimore 8 3 0 .727 250 188
Pittsburgh 8 3 0 .727 254 181
Cleveland 4 7 0 .364 216 229
Cincinnati 2 9 0 .182 225 288
West W L T Pct PF PA
Kansas City 7 4 0 .636 285 231
San Diego 6 5 0 .545 310 225
Oakland 5 6 0 .455 255 256
Denver 3 8 0 .273 250 323

NATIONAL CONFERENCE
East W L T Pct PF PA
Philadelphia 8 4 0 .667 344 281
N.Y. Giants 7 4 0 .636 277 240
Washington 5 6 0 .455 215 262
Dallas 3 8 0 .273 256 301
South W L T Pct PF PA
Atlanta 9 2 0 .818 276 209
New Orleans 8 3 0 .727 265 197
Tampa Bay 7 4 0 .636 219 223
Carolina 1 10 0 .091 140 276
North W L T Pct PF PA
Chicago 8 3 0 .727 222 172
Green Bay 7 4 0 .636 269 166
Minnesota 4 7 0 .364 189 239
Detroit 2 9 0 .182 258 282
West W L T Pct PF PA
Seattle 5 6 0 .455 209 275
St. Louis 5 6 0 .455 213 231
San Francisco 4 7 0 .364 187 225
Arizona 3 8 0 .273 194 319





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