Urlacher headlines injury-plagued opening week

The NFL is without two of its most dynamic defenders right now. Brian Urlacher is gone for the season in Chicago while Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh’s long-haired human missile of a safety, could miss a month or more. It’s not that teams can’t succeed without their stars — they will tell you they can — just that playmakers are hard to find.

Bears center Olin Kreutz said it best: “You don’t replace Hall of Fame guys with just anybody.”

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That wasn’t meant as a knock on Hunter Hillenmayer, who moves into Urlacher’s position, it’s just simple reality. The Bears will move some players around and say they will be OK. But the Bears lost plenty; their defensive captain and the rock of their team. Heck, Urlacher kept playing with a broken wrist for almost a whole quarter. How many guys could do that?

The Bears were jolted back to reality with the loss of Urlacher and Jay Cutler’s implausible four-interception night in Lambeau. There is no question that Hillenmeyer, a player the Packers gave up on, by the way, has the smarts to call the defensive signals. He is the team’s most cerebral linebacker and started seven games for Urlacher in 2004.

“My job is not to go and try to be Brian Urlacher,” Hillenmeyer said. “My job is to go play the best that I can. It’s not my burden; it’s the whole defense’s burden when you lose a guy like him.”

The bigger question in Chicago is can Urlacher make another comeback? He worked so hard on getting bigger this offseason while maintaining his speed that you have to wonder if he can gear up for 2010 when he will be 32 years old. It will be his 11th season, and every Chicago fan knows that Dick Butkus only played nine years in the middle and Mike Singletary 12. It’s a lot to think about.

In Philadelphia, the Eagles signed Jeff Garcia, 39, because they remembered his late-season heroics in 2006 when Donovan McNabb missed the final six weeks. McNabb’s broken rib isn’t supposed to be that serious, but Andy Reid seems to have lost confidence in Kevin Kolb, his personal pick to eventually replace McNabb. With five sacks and seven turnovers, the Eagles’ D didn’t miss a beat from the late Jim Johnson to Sean McDermott against Carolina, and maybe that group can save the day against the high-powered Saints on Sunday.

There definitely have been worse opening weeks when it comes to injuries, but Urlacher, Polamalu and McNabb are major stars. Other teams like Jacksonville lost hard-luck defensive end Reggie Hayward for the second time in four seasons, this time with a broken shin. The Jaguars, who almost upset the Colts in Indy, don’t have the depth to lose speed rushers. On the flip side, the Colts probably will be minus receiver Anthony Gonzalez for a month, but I don’t see them making a phone call to unemployed Marvin Harrison. Peyton Manning likes young receivers Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie and the coaches like Taj Smith, who is on the practice squad.

Anybody who watched the two Monday night games knows that New England’s defense looked very mediocre once middle linebacker Jerod Mayo left with a knee injury. If Mayo’s injury is serious, the Pats could be in for a long season. Buffalo’s Fred Jackson looked unstoppable at times on screens and wide runs and the Bills were playing with three offensive linemen without any NFL experience. Buffalo also lost their middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, who broke a bone in his left arm, the same arm that cost him all of last season. Bills coach Dick Jauron believes this injury, however, isn’t as bad that one!

And in the Monday night nightcap, the Raiders revamped offensive line rammed the ball right down San Diego’s throat, but the bigger news was that San Diego lost Pro Bowl center Nick Hardwick and guard Louis Vasquez. Phillip Rivers was under pressure — Richard Seymour looked great for not having practiced in over a week — all night long and the Chargers could be in trouble if those two starters are out for an extended period. For all their hype, the Chargers looked like pretenders in the Black Hole.

Also, LaDainian Tomlinson twisted an ankle when he lost a fumble in the first quarter and that’s why he wasn’t around in crunch time, trying to prove that he’s as good as Adrian Peterson. For two years now, the Chargers must be questioning themselves why they ever allowed Michael Turner to escape. He was the power back that Norv Turner loves to use. The whole issue in San Diego is that Darren Sproles may be better than L.T. right now.

Without question, the worst disaster last Sunday may have been the meltdown of Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, whose interceptions continue to mount. In Carolina, Jake simply has to manage the game and get a few passes to Steve Smith, because he has a two-headed monster at running back in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Coach John Fox was so desperate they put backup Josh McCown (foot) on injured-reserve in order to sign Philadelphia’s fourth-string quarterback, A.J. Feeley. Fox listed Delhomme’s psyche as “day-to-day.”

Back to Philadelphia, the Eagles could find no takers for receivers Reggie Brown and Hank Baskett, so they elected to put offensive lineman Shawn Andrews on injured reserve, meaning that arguably one of the NFL’s best offensive lineman in 2007 will miss his second straight season. Andrews is saying his back, which underwent surgery in the last year, is what’s bothering him, but we all know that he also suffers from clinical depression. This is a huge loss for the Eagles, considering they were built this offseason to make a serious run at the Super Bowl.

In Pittsburgh, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is pleased that he has veteran Tyrone Carter to plug into Polamalu’s safety spot. Carter, 33, still loves to creep into the defensive box and stuff the run, which he needs to do against the Bears this weekend. But the key is that Carter definitely knows LeBeau’s complicated 3-4 defense. Granted, he’s replacing the NFL’s best safety, but the Steelers have confidence in Carter and they still have James Harrison, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to pick up the slack.