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Brian Urlacher’s influence is still deeply felt by the Bears

Updated: September 4, 2013 9:22PM

The Bears miss Brian Urlacher.

‘‘I’ve never seen a better leader, a better superstar in my life,’’ former teammate Blake Costanzo said in the Bears’ locker room at Halas Hall. ‘‘I don’t think you can ever replace a guy like that — a guy that was so integral in the game of football — no matter how many awesome guys you’ve got in the locker room. He was one of a kind.’’

‘‘Of course we miss him on the field, but I miss him most off the field,’’ cornerback Tim Jennings said. ‘‘He was somebody you always feel comfortable around. Those are guys you want to play your heart out for, guys you respect tremendously as one of those big-brother type of guys in the locker room, off the field.’’

The Bears will enter the regular season without Brian Urlacher for the first time since 1999 when they play the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Soldier Field with D.J. Williams or rookie Jon Bostic at middle linebacker. But while Urlacher’s absence is unmistakable in every facet of life at Halas Hall, it’s a little less perceptible on the field. Urlacher was an eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year. But even on a defense that had his indelible signature on it, Urlacher still was one guy. When the Bears say, ‘‘the defense is the star of the defense,’’ they mean it.

Now they get to prove it.

As much as Urlacher is missed in the locker room, the meeting rooms, the lunch room and every room at Halas Hall except maybe the media room, the Bears have a chance to be better without him.

And it’s all because of him. The legacies of Urlacher and coach Lovie Smith breathe deep within the Bears’ defense.

If training camp and the ­preseason are any indication, ­almost everything they do ­reminds you of Urlacher and Smith. Since Chris Conte picked off a deflected pass on Jay Cutler’s first pass of 11-on-11 drills in Bourbonnais, the defense has played as if Urlacher was still in the middle and Smith was still running the show. On the third series of the first preseason game, Bostic, playing Urlacher’s middle-linebacker position, intercepted Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and returned it 51 yards for a touchdown. Some things never change.

The Bears had nine interceptions in the preseason — from nine players — and 13 takeaways in all. It’s only preseason, but the Bears still looked like the Bears. Even without Urlacher.

‘‘If I was Brian Urlacher, I wouldn’t feel bad about the situation at all,’’ Jennings said. ‘‘I’d feel good about it, knowing that you [instilled] so much into this defense that you could be gone and we could still run it like he was here.

‘‘Of course, he’s going to be missed. But we’ve learned so much from him — how to play with him, and without him. He’s done a great job of instilling it in our brains how this defense is supposed to work.’’

Of all the moves the Bears have made since the end of last ­season, defensive coordinator Mel ­Tucker’s decision to leave Smith’s defense alone could be as important as any. The offense might end up being the heart of this team. But the defense will always be the soul. And Urlacher remains a big part of that.

‘‘Completely,’’ Conte said. ‘‘We’re running the same defense. We’re doing the same things because what they [Urlacher and Smith] created and what they did works. It’s a good defense. When it’s executed well, it’s the top defense in the NFL. We’re just trying to continue that tradition.’’


Twitter: @MarkPotash

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