LAKE FOREST, Ill. — It didn’t take too long for Brian Urlacher’s concerns to disappear. By the end of training camp, they were all gone.
Healthy and rejuvenated, Urlacher is back to playing at a high level again 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 this week’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 and now 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 at 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. 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 per 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.”