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Bears seem better equipped to cope with Brian Urlacher’s possible absence with Nick Roach, stronger ‘O’

Updated: September 16, 2012 6:26AM

BOURBONNAIS — The Bears will miss Brian Urlacher if he can’t play in regular-season games after having arthroscopic surgery Tuesday. But probably not as much as they’ve missed him in the past.

When Urlacher missed seven games with a hamstring problem in 2004, the Bears were 0-7 without him and 5-4 with him. They allowed 26 points a game without him and 16.6 points with him.

When Urlacher missed most of the 2009 season after he suffered a dislocated wrist in the first half of the season opener against the Packers, the Bears finished 7-9. They ranked 17th in total defense and 21st in points allowed.

Hunter Hillenmeyer replaced Urlacher at middle linebacker each season, though Nick Roach started three games in the middle in 2009.

‘‘Hunter always did a good job, whether it was middle or outside,’’ linebackers coach Bob Babich said. ‘‘But Hunter Hillenmeyer isn’t here. Nick Roach did a good job — not to disrespect Hunter at all. But he did a good job when he was in there.’’

Among the differences this year — if it comes to it — is that Roach is a five-year veteran with more experience at middle linebacker than anybody who has backed up Urlacher.

‘‘I think Nick is a lot better than he was in ’09, so I’d say, yes, we’re better equipped [to handle Urlacher’s absence],’’ Babich said.

In 2004, Urlacher was entering his prime as one of the NFL’s best middle linebackers. He had led the Bears with 214 tackles and 19 tackles for loss in 2003 — both still career bests. And the Bears were a defense in transition in Lovie Smith’s first season as coach.

In 2009, the Bears’ defense was in flux. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris was a shell of his former self. And even Urlacher was coming off the least productive season of his career — 107 tackles in 2008.

So the Bears, on paper, are better equipped to withstand the loss of Urlacher with weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs, cornerback Charles Tillman and defensive end Julius Peppers coming off Pro Bowl seasons. And Peppers, in particular, gives the Bears a difference-making pass rusher who can elevate the defense by himself.

‘‘I just need to be me,’’ Briggs said when asked if he would have to step up to fill the void. ‘‘Whatever leadership comes along with me being me is what I’m going to do.’’

The other significant factor is the Bears’ offense. In 2004, the Bears ranked last in the NFL in total yards and points. They averaged 11.4 points in the seven games Urlacher missed.

In 2009, Jay Cutler, in his first season with the Bears, kept the team afloat after Urlacher’s injury. He threw seven touchdown passes and had passer ratings of 104.7, 126.4 and 100.4 in victories over the Steelers, Seahawks and Lions as the Bears improved to 3-1. But when Cutler faltered, the defense collapsed, losing 45-10 to the Bengals, 41-21 to the Cardinals, 36-10 to the Vikings and 31-7 to the Ravens to finish 7-9.

Cutler is in his fourth season with the team and has better weapons than ever, particularly receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. A good offense has rarely been the Bears’ best defense. But that might happen this season.

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