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Urlacher says Bears have talent, depth to back up expectations

Associated Press

7/25/2012 4:20:23 PM

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Brian Urlacher's outlook is as healthy as his left knee.

The Pro Bowl linebacker insisted the Chicago Bears are loaded and ready to meet soaring expectations after one of their busiest offseasons in recent memory.

New general manager Phil Emery replaced the fired Jerry Angelo and immediately went to work, acquiring Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall from Miami and adding depth throughout the roster.

"I think we have the talent now to reach our expectations," Urlacher said Wednesday. "And we always say it because it's the right thing to say, but I really think we can do it this year."

Besides adding some key pieces, quarterback Jay Cutler and Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte are healthy after injuries cut short their seasons.

Urlacher is feeling better, too. He was basically an observer during off-season workouts and minicamp after spraining his knee in the final game against Minnesota, and he and coach Lovie Smith said there will be no limitations once practice starts on Thursday.

"He's ready to go," Smith said. "We're cautious with players when they're not fit and full-speed ready to go, but once we get them out there, we're never trying to take out any of our players in practice."

Urlacher said his knee is fine and he expects to participate in every practice, except for the occasional day off from Smith.

Urlacher's health could go a long way toward determining whether the Bears meet their goals after a disappointing 8-8 finish. They were sailing along and seemed poised for another playoff run after reaching the NFC championship game the previous season before unraveling.

Cutler's broken right thumb late in a win over San Diego on Nov. 20 ruined a 7-3 start and sent them on a five-game losing streak. It didn't help, either, that Forte sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee against Kansas City on Dec. 4 and missed the rest of the season.

By the time Urlacher was injured against Minnesota in a collision with teammate Major Wright, the Bears were out of contention. That injury aside, Urlacher shows no signs of slowing down.

At 34, he made his eighth Pro Bowl last year and played in all 16 games for the 10th time in his first 12 seasons. The only years he didn't were when he missed seven games in 2004 because of injuries and when he sat out almost the entire 2009 season after dislocating his right wrist in the opener at Green Bay.

He remains a leader on a defence that features Pro Bowl players in defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman but also has some question marks.

Age is one. The defensive line and secondary are two more.

The Bears ranked fifth against the run but 28th against the pass because the line simply didn't create enough havoc at times.

Peppers had 11 sacks, but with inconsistent play up front, Chicago tied for 19th with just 33 overall. The Bears drafted defensive end Shea McClellin in the first round hoping he could take some of the load off the veteran, but the interior linemen need to step up, too.

"They stepped up last year," Urlacher said. "We're kind of thin up there right now. I'm not sure what guys are going to be (where), but they've done good. Henry (Melton) is an explosive guy. (Matt Toeaina) is solid, always in his gap. We've lost (Anthony Adams), so we have to find somebody to replace him, but they've done a good job the last couple of years."

The Bears need more, particularly with Urlacher, Peppers, Briggs and Tillman in their 30s. They've shown no signs of slowing down, but how much longer they can stay at that level remains to be seen.

For now, the goals are high. The Bears believe they can compete with Green Bay and Detroit in the NFC North and make a playoff run after coming up short last year. Now, it's on them to back it up.

""There's a sense of urgency every year," said Urlacher, who has an expiring contract. "It's a new team every single year. There are guys gone, guys get cut or ... traded. Every year, there's a sense of urgency."

Notes: Forte wasn't in the most talkative mood on Wednesday afternoon. He gave several rather short answers about his new four-year contract, camp and the team to reporters trailing him as he left the dining hall. When someone mentioned that he didn't seem too happy, Forte said, "I don't like having you around me. I'm trying to go get my playbook, you know? Talk to y'all later." ... The Bears placed WR Johnny Knox on the active/physically unable to perform list on Wednesday. Knox is recovering from a gruesome back injury last season.