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Bears not as good at forcing turnovers without Brian Urlacher

Safety Major Wright (21) says Bears’ defense is focused being plus-two turnover battle every game. | Julio Cortez~AP

Safety Major Wright (21) says the Bears’ defense is focused on being plus-two in the turnover battle in every game. | Julio Cortez~AP

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Year Total takeaways (rank in NFC) Urlacher

2011 31 takeaways (tied for fourth) Five takeaways

2010 35 takeaways (second) Four takeaways

2009 28 takeaways (tied for eighth) Dislocated wrist in Game 1

2008 32 takeaways (first) Three takeaways

2007 33 takeaways (fourth) Seven takeaways

2006 43 takeaways (first) Four takeaways

2005 34 takeaways (fourth) Zero takeaways

2004 29 takeaways (sixth)  Started only nine games

Updated: September 27, 2012 11:40AM

After three preseason games and nothing but a dress rehearsal left this week in Cleveland, it’s time for the Bears to address the elephant in the room.

Or, in this case, the elephant not in the room.

Coach Lovie Smith can talk about ‘‘next man up’’ all he wants. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli can stress ‘‘building depth.’’ But without middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and his injured left knee on the field, the Bears know deep down their defense isn’t ready for the start of the regular season.

Not when its biggest strength is just average at this point.

‘‘Preseason, regular season, it doesn’t matter,’’ safety Major Wright said. ‘‘When we’re on the field, we need to see turnovers.’’

That’s a need that isn’t being met. Through three preseason games, the starting unit is plus-one in the takeaway/giveaway category, with only two real highlights on the defensive side. There was Wright’s interception of Peyton Manning against the Denver Broncos and the sack/fumble by Israel Idonije against the Washington Redskins.

‘‘It’s about getting the ball away,’’ safety Craig Steltz said. ‘‘A strip, an interception, we’ve got to start getting the ball away better than we have. That’s a huge part of what we preach on defense.

‘‘We preach plus-two. We know if we get that plus-two, there’s a high probability of us winning that ballgame. There are a number of ways to get that done, and we have to continue focusing on getting that ball out.’’

While there might be ‘‘a number of ways to get that done,’’ the real cause of the turnover havoc isn’t on the field. Urlacher hasn’t played in the preseason, with the hope he will be ready for the regular-season opener Sept. 9 against the Indianapolis Colts. And the effect Urlacher has on turnovers can’t be ignored.

Since Smith became the Bears’ coach and installed his Tampa-2 ­defense, only twice have the Bears had fewer than 30 takeaways in a season and finished lower than fourth in that category in the NFC. Those two seasons were 2004 and 2009.

Not coincidentally, Urlacher played in only nine games in 2004 and in only one in 2009. The 28 takeaways the Bears had in 2009 were their fewest under Smith.

‘‘[Turnovers] are essential, especially in the defense we run, the Tampa-2,’’ defensive end Corey Wootton said. ‘‘It’s all about getting upfield penetration, getting that rush and really causing turnovers on people. We need to do a better job as a team collectively of getting that ball out a little more.

‘‘Getting turnovers is the key thing. We have turnover goals every game, and I don’t remember when we’ve reached that [this preseason].’’

ESPN analyst Herm Edwards made the point three weeks ago that Urlacher’s size and speed in Smith’s version of the cover-2 is perfect for an opportunistic defense. In the passing game, Urlacher takes away seam routes better than anyone, leaving opposing quarterbacks to force the ball into coverage or run out of time in the pocket. That basically plays right into what the Bears want them to do.

‘‘I don’t know what other teams are stressing, but I know what our team stresses,’’ Wright said. ‘‘It’s about going away from that game plus-two, just having more takeaways than our opponent every week. That’s what we want to do, and it’s not happening like we want it so far.’’

What should make the Bears nervous is that if Urlacher is out for longer than expected or dinged up enough where he isn’t the same playmaker on the field, the focus of Smith’s defense is severely handicapped.

‘‘We take the field as a unit knowing that at any time this ball can come out because we stress it so much,’’ Wright said. ‘‘Brian’s out right now, and we’re just going to roll with what we’ve got.’’

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