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Bears’ defense isn’t getting any younger, and that’s not comforting

Brian Urlacher Lance Briggs have been teaming up linebacker since Briggs’ rookie seas2003. | Getty Images

Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs have been teaming up at linebacker since Briggs’ rookie season in 2003. | Getty Images

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Updated: October 1, 2012 5:30PM

The Bears’ defense is getting old, and nothing short of fake IDs will change that. The question is when it will crumble into a heap of physical ailments, kids-these-days complaints and mobility scooters.

Another question: What if this season is the season it happens?

Elton John will switch to contact lenses before coach Lovie Smith acknowledges the defense is aging, but there’s no hiding the truth. A wobbly Brian Urlacher is 34. Julius Peppers is 32. Lance Briggs turns 32 in November. Charles Tillman is 31. That’s the beating heart of the Bears’ ‘‘D.’’

Smith would prefer the terms ‘‘experienced’’ or ‘‘fire-tested,’’ but this is the NFL, and that collection of talent is ‘‘um, older.’’ If the unit stays healthy and plays up to its abilities, then age won’t be an issue this season. If it doesn’t, then the inevitable discussion will be one of decline.

Smith says Urlacher will be back on the practice field next week and in the starting lineup for the season opener Sept. 9 against the Colts, which sounds rash. No one knows whether it’s the truth, Smith’s never-beaten, never-tied optimism or an attempt to keep the Colts guessing.

And no one knows whether Urlacher’s lingering knee injury is the first domino in a chain reaction of older players giving in to age. Peppers is bothered by a foot injury. Tillman has had a tough preseason.

Is all of this as precarious as it seems, or is my imagination playing tricks on me? To find out, I went to Bears Hall of Famer Dan Hampton, who collected injuries like baseball cards when he was a player.

‘‘Steve McMichael and I, we had had 35 knee operations between us,’’ he said. ‘‘Urlacher said he didn’t know what to expect from [recent arthroscopic] surgery because he had never had it. I’m like, ‘Count your lucky stars, dude. Thirty-four, and you’ve never had a scope? I had one when I was 22.’ ’’

Hampton sees some cracks in the Bears’ defense, but he also sees some factors that might help keep the wall in one piece longer.

‘‘Things have changed,’’ he said. ‘‘In our day, when you turned 32, 33, it was like walking off a cliff. But they don’t hit in practice now. They don’t hit in camp like we did, so there is a little bit of a saving-the-battery-life kind of effect.

‘‘The cover-2, unfortunately, has to have a linebacker that can run like Urlacher used to. His limitations or demise is going to affect everyone. If Urlacher cannot reclaim that ability to play that center field of the cover-2, it’s going to create stress on everybody else, and it’s just a matter of time before smart quarterbacks and offensive coordinators start figuring it out.’’

If the Bears are smart, they’ll sit Urlacher against the Colts, who went 2-14 last season.

‘‘Whoever wants to play him against Indianapolis is nutty,’’ Hampton said.

If Urlacher does play against the Colts, let’s see how he does when the Bears face the Packers in Green Bay four days later. That will be a good gauge of where he is physically.

If physical decline visits the defense this season, which players are ready to take over for Urlacher, Peppers or Tillman? Nick Roach for Urlacher? Corey Wootton or unproven rookie Shea McClellin for Peppers? Kelvin Hayden for Tillman? You expect a drop-off when your stars go down; that’s why they’re stars and why their replacements are second-stringers. But the drop-off looks precipitous for the Bears right now.

The team and its fans had better hope this season isn’t the one in which the aging process kicks in with a vengeance. If there are no signs of slowing down, this could be a very good season for the franchise. If there are injuries, it could get ugly around here.

The good news is that the offense is talented enough to make up for some of the defensive deficiencies that might arise. Adding receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery to quarterback Jay Cutler’s arsenal should be a huge boost. Scoring more points than the other team is always the idea.

In the meantime, the Bears might want to get started on a new deal for Cutler, whose contract expires after next season. He might be the only one left standing by then, though a lot of that depends on his shaky offensive line.

Sorry about that. One worry at a time.

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