Urlacher’s knee casts some uncertainty over Bears

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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