NFL

Urlacher's knee casts some uncertainty over Bears

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CHICAGO (AP)

The Chicago Bears came into training camp with few question marks. Now, there's a big one.

Brian Urlacher's nagging knee injury cast a cloud over a team that's aiming high after an offseason makeover. The Bears believe they have the talent and depth to make a big run after being derailed by injuries last year, but losing the eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker would be a huge blow.

Urlacher missed the offseason training program after spraining the medial collateral ligament and partially spraining the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the final game last season against Minnesota. He was ready for the start of camp, but ultimately had to shut it down, and he eventually had an arthroscopic procedure in mid-August, sending a groan through Chicago.

''I want to be ready for the games that count,'' he said.

They start counting Sept. 9, when the Bears open against Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts. Even if he's ready for that game, Urlacher acknowledged the knee could be an issue all season. And on a team with few concerns, his health tops the list.

Otherwise, the Bears appear to be in a good spot. They made some big moves following their collapse to an 8-8 record after a 7-3 start, beginning with the firing of general manager Jerry Angelo. Phil Emery replaced him and immediately went to work, acquiring Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall in a trade with the Miami Dolphins. That gave quarterback Jay Cutler the go-to target he lacked since he arrived from Denver.

Even better, he's reunited with his favorite receiver. The two put up huge numbers together with the Broncos, and it doesn't hurt, either, that one of Cutler's mentors from Denver - Jeremy Bates - is now the quarterbacks coach overseeing the passing game.

Emery didn't stop with the Marshall trade. He brought in Jason Campbell, giving Cutler a reliable backup after Caleb Hanie failed last season, and added Michael Bush to pair with Matt Forte in the backfield. He also addressed needs on special teams, renegotiated Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs' contract, and agreed to a four-year, $32 million deal with Forte right before the deadline after placing the franchise tag on him.

With all the new pieces in place, the Bears believe they will have an explosive offense. That will take a load off their defense, but Cutler cautioned the product isn't finished just yet.

''We've got a lot of stuff we have to figure out,'' he said. ''We've had good days out here, we've had bad days and we've had really bad days out here, so there's a lot of work to be done. This isn't the final product.''

Defensive end Israel Idonije likes what he has seen so far.

''The potential that we as a defense will have having an offense like that behind us, it's going to be exciting,'' he said.

Now, it's up to the Bears to prove they really can contend with Green Bay and Detroit in the NFC North and make a deep playoff run. They seemed poised to do that last year when everything fell apart.

Cutler broke his right thumb trying to help make a tackle following an interception against San Diego in late November and the Bears went into a tailspin, dropping five in a row and missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. It didn't help, either, that Forte sprained a ligament in his right knee against Kansas City on Dec. 4 and missed the rest of the regular season.

There still are some lingering questions, aside from Urlacher's health.

-Can Marshall stay out of trouble? He has a long history of off-field problems and has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Right before the Bears acquired him, a woman accused Marshall of punching her in the face at a New York City nightclub, but his attorney said that was not true. Marshall was never charged, and the only headlines involving him since then have been football-related.

-Can the offensive line hold its ground? It's no secret that unit has ranked among the league's worst the past few years and that Cutler has taken a heavy beating. The Bears believe that will change in part because Mike Martz is gone. Mike Tice was promoted to offensive coordinator from line coach after getting the most out of an undermanned unit, and he simplified the offense. They're cutting back on the seven-step drops, moving the pocket and getting the ball out of Cutler's hands quicker. That alone figures to reduce the wear and tear on him, but the Bears need more.

J'Marcus Webb or Chris Williams must show he can protect Cutler's blind side at left tackle, and right tackle Gabe Carimi needs to deliver on his first-round billing after his rookie season was cut short by a season-ending knee injury in the second game.

''I have trouble sleeping at night until I know that our quarterback is protected,'' Tice said.

-Can the defensive line create enough havoc? Sure, the Bears have one of the game's best defensive ends in Julius Peppers, but he needs help. They need to take advantage of the constant attention he receives, and they didn't last season. Chicago tied for 19th in the league with 33 sacks even though Peppers had 11, and was 28th against the pass in part because the line wasn't getting enough pressure on a consistent basis.

-Will age catch up to the Bears on defense? Urlacher, Briggs, Peppers and Charles Tillman are all in their 30s, but they all made the Pro Bowl last season.

Those questions aside, the Bears appear to be in a good spot.

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Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Tagged: Bears, Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte

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