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Bears’ aging defense finally getting help

Bears cornerback Tim Jennings (26) reacts after breaking up pass against St. Louis Rams.  |  Charles Rex Arbogast~AP

Bears cornerback Tim Jennings (26) reacts after breaking up a pass against the St. Louis Rams. | Charles Rex Arbogast~AP

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Updated: October 26, 2012 2:22PM

Coach Lovie Smith seemed a little miffed Monday that even though the Bears are 2-1 — tied for the second-best record in the NFL — Chicago is fixated on an offense that is failing to live up to high expectations and a quarterback with a nearly $10 million cap number and a 58.6 passer rating, 31st in the league.

‘‘You live in the past quite a bit,’’ he chided one reporter who dared to ask about the Bears’ habit of slow starts on offense in recent seasons.

If Smith wanted to pick a fight, he should’ve stuck to his strength and wondered why we’re not asking about his ‘‘aging’’ defense. Or why we’re not asking whether Brian Urlacher will play this week; or whether Israel Idonije can come back from an ‘‘off’’ season; or whether the Bears can find any playmakers besides Pro Bowl veterans Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman.

Because if it’s early enough to wonder why Jay Cutler is ranked 31st in the NFL in passer rating or if the offensive line will ever be of NFL quality, it’s early enough to acknowledge that — so far — Smith has been right about almost every one of the major concerns about the Bears’ defense.

Urlacher, who missed most of the offseason program and didn’t play in the preseason, has played in all three regular-season games. And while he’s not vintage Urlacher, his weekly progress at least backs up Smith’s contention that he’ll get there eventually.

And more to the point, the Bears have not yet needed vintage Urlacher to play as well as Bears defenses have with Urlacher at his best. The Bears are second in the NFL in defensive points allowed (36), behind only the Texans (33).

While it’s disappointing that the defense has resumed its role of putting this team on its back, it’s at least encouraging that Urlacher, Peppers, Briggs and Tillman aren’t carrying the defense on their backs.

What the Bears needed this season is upgrades. And — so far — it looks like they’re getting them.

Cornerback Tim Jennings — benched in Week 16 last year and challenged by Smith to become a playmaker — has been a revelation with four interceptions and several other big plays. Against the Rams, he deflected a fourth-and-one pass to stop one drive and deflected another that safety Major Wright intercepted and returned 45 yards for a touchdown.

Second-year defensive tackle Stephen Paea was inactive at this time as a rookie last season. He just played the best game of his career Sunday, with a sack and consistent pressure.

Rookie Shea McClellin might never be the every-down defensive end the Bears insist he’ll be. But his impact as a situational pass rusher already is better than expected.

Others have made contributions without making the kinds of mistakes that led to big plays early last season. Linebacker Nick Roach had a sack against the Rams. Defensive tackle Henry Melton has three sacks in three games. Safeties Wright and Chris Conte have started all three games without incident.

And when all that comes together, a guy like Idonije becomes much more dangerous whether he has five sacks or 10. He had 21/2 against the Rams — falling into one when Bradford lost the ball after taking the snap from center. But when you’re going good, you’re going good. Jennings was beaten badly by Brandon Gibson in the first quarter of a 3-0 game. It could’ve been a touchdown. But Gibson dropped the ball. On the next play, Paea sacked Bradford for a 10-yard loss, and the Rams punted.

As with any good team, timing is everything. In 2006, the Bears’ defense and Rex Grossman were hotter than hot at the beginning, and both wilted down the stretch. This defense might eventually lose its touch. But there’s always the chance that by then, Cutler and the offensive line will be in a groove. That’s how you win big in the NFL.

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