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Bears’ defensive standouts Tim Jennings and Henry Melton expected back this week

Bears cornerback Tim Jennings races endzone after his interceptigiving Bears 20-19 lead fourth quarter Chicago Bears 23-22 wover CarolinPanthers Sunday

Bears cornerback Tim Jennings races to the endzone after his interception giving the Bears a 20-19 lead in the fourth quarter of the Chicago Bears 23-22 win over the Carolina Panthers Sunday October 28, 2012 at Soldier Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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The Bears’ defense finally might be ready to carry the team’s laboring offense across the finish line.

With cornerback Tim Jennings and defensive tackle Henry Melton — likely Pro Bowl players — expected to return this week, the defense could be close to full strength for Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals. Linebacker Brian Urlacher, still recovering from a hamstring injury, would be the only starter missing.

Urlacher didn’t practice Thursday at the Payton Center. Jennings, Melton, defensive end Shea McClellin (knee) and linebackers Geno Hayes (knee) and Blake Costanzo (calf) were limited.

Jennings, who leads the NFL with eight interceptions, has missed the last two games after suffering a dislocated shoulder in a 23-17 overtime loss Dec. 2 to the Seattle Seahawks. He particularly was missed against the Packers and Aaron Rodgers, who threw three touchdown passes in a 21-13 victory last Sunday over the Bears.

‘‘I feel good — [my] body feels well enough to continue playing at a high level,’’ Jennings said. ‘‘I just want to definitely make sure my shoulder is where it needs to be strength- and flexibility-wise to [play].’’

Melton, who has six sacks but only one in his last six games, suffered a collarbone injury against the Minnesota Vikings when he tripped on the Metrodome turf.

‘‘I was being sloppy and fell on my shoulder,’’ Melton said. ‘‘It was kind of embarrassing. I’m way more athletic than that. I was running sideways, and I kind of stumbled over a bunch of guys’ feet and just fell straight on my shoulder. I was like, ‘Why did I even fall like that?’ ’’

That has been the story of the second half for the Bears. Urlacher and Jennings were injured in overtime against Seattle — neither would have happened if safety Major Wright intercepts a Russell Wilson pass in the fourth quarter instead of dropping it.

The Bears have been cautious with their injured players to give them the best chance to be healthy for a possible playoff run.

‘‘I could definitely play through it,’’ Melton said, ‘‘but they don’t want anything worse to happen to it that would keep me out of the playoffs. We’re going to see how it feels and maybe give it a go.’’

Linebacker Lance Briggs said it would be huge to get Jennings and Melton back.

‘‘They’re two of our playmakers — game-changing players,’’ said Briggs, who leads the Bears with 109 tackles. ‘‘To have those guys on the field is very important. Those two guys will make a difference this week.’’

The Bears (8-6) have lost five of their last six games. But the mood is not dour at Halas Hall.

‘‘Upbeat,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘Guys are going to take care of business. We’re playing for something. We could use a lot of motivational terms right now. But we’ve got to win.’’

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