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Bears’ Brian Urlacher seems to be getting better with age

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Updated: May 9, 2012 9:47AM

Someday soon, the No. 54 jersey will be slower, less intimidating.

It will be a step behind running backs out of the backfield, it will miss tackles, it will jump onto the pile of bodies late, rather than start the pile.

It will be just another number on an aging player. A memory of what used to be.

“Not yet,’’ Bears defensive end Israel Idonije said with a smirk Sunday. “This guy is phenomenal, and, trust me, we are all going to continue to see him do some bigger things this season.’’

If middle linebacker Brian Urlacher actually is due for bigger things than he showed in the Bears’ 30-12 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, well, opposing offensive coordinators might want to plop, plop, fizz, fizz and get the Alka-Seltzer going right now.

All Urlacher, 33, did in the season opener was pick off quarterback Matt Ryan in the first quarter, which led to a 56-yard Matt Forte catch-and-run. Then he picked up a fumble at the Falcons’ 12-yard line in the third quarter before waltzing it into the end zone to all but put “Matty Ice’’ on ice.

“I mean age has nothing to do with it,’’ Idonije said. “This is a guy that is in phenomenal shape. His football IQ is outstanding. He’s one of those guys that you can count on to get in the game and make plays.’’

Considering all the questions surrounding the 2011 Bears, Urlacher was one of the few players who wasn’t clouded in what-ifs.

He’s not alone now, not after the defensive clinic the Bears put on Atlanta. That was statement enough. A loud and clear one, whether Urlacher wanted to admit it or not.

“It was a good start,’’ Urlacher said. “We got a ways to go. We made some mistakes, me included.’’

Asked if it was simply the Bears’ defense picking up where it left off last season, Urlacher’s hair would have stood up — if he had any.

“Not even close,’’ he said. “We’re decent right now; we can get better. We make mistakes, but that will change from seeing plays. Our game plan is simple. Our coaches put us in spots where we can make plays, for the most part. We got a long way to go, but we’re building toward that.’’

And Urlacher is wearing the foreman’s hat.

His interception of Ryan in the first quarter was a thing of beauty. Urlacher sensed tight end Tony Gonzalez settling in behind him, noticed Ryan looking to his right, then snagged the ball out of the air. It was career interception No. 19, breaking a tie with Hall of Famer Bill George for third-most by a linebacker in franchise history.

Asked to break the play down, Urlacher was still causing havoc, this time with media questions he deemed obvious.

“It was crazy, man; he threw it, and I caught it,’’ Urlacher said sarcastically. “That’s what I remember.’’

As for his fumble recovery and fourth career touchdown, Urlacher was a bit more reflective.

“I thought Pep [defensive end Julius Peppers] had it,’’ Urlacher said. “I was going to contain [Ryan] and saw the ball. I thought Pep was going to get it. Luckily, it bounced to me. I was able to pick it up and not drop it.’’

Ah, nothing like a little self-deprecation to downplay what was the kicking of dirt on the Falcons’ chances.

What can’t be downplayed is Urlacher’s importance to this defense. Still.

All the talk about “Pep,’’ the deep defensive line, the hard-hitting defensive backs, it’s all well and good.

All the debate about fellow linebacker Lance Briggs’ contract is just empty talk.

Let’s not understate what makes the blood flow.

Urlacher is still the heart.

“He’s the quarterback of our defense,’’ Idonije said. “He orchestrates everything. Coming up making plays, scoring touchdowns, dropping back and intercepting balls like we all saw. Just phenomenal. He’s critical to what we do. He’s just an incredible force roaming the middle of that field.’’

Idonije knows there will be a day when the No. 54 jersey is no longer that roaming force in the middle.

“Not yet,’’ he said.

No wonder he was smirking.

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