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Brian Urlacher, Tim Jennings are out, so Bears’ D-line must step up

The onus will be Julius Peppers (left) Israel Idonije rest Bears’ defensive linemen Sunday against Vikings. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

The onus will be on Julius Peppers (left), Israel Idonije and the rest of the Bears’ defensive linemen Sunday against the Vikings. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 9, 2013 6:13AM

When questioned about opponents slowing down his touted defensive line recently, Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli didn’t break down chop blocks, bootlegs or the zone-read option.

Instead, he delivered one of his customary messages.

“No, it’s usually about what we do,” Marinelli said. “We just have to get better.”

The defensive line has become the Bears’ biggest strength. All the players in the rotation are big, fast and athletic.

With linebacker Brian Urlacher (hamstring) and cornerback Tim Jennings (right shoulder) sidelined and others battling various minor ailments, the Bears’ defense is at its most vulnerable heading into the rematch Sunday with the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome.

But strong performances by the defensive linemen can make up for whatever goes on behind them.

If veteran cornerback Kelvin Hayden gets beaten deep, it doesn’t matter if the line gets to quarterback Christian Ponder. If Nick Roach fills the wrong hole at middle linebacker, it might not matter if a lineman is already in the backfield.

A lot has been made of the Bears’ 7-15 record without Urlacher, who might miss the rest of the regular season, and how his absence could spell doom for the team.

But if there’s one reason to be optimistic, it’s that the defensive line is much better than it was in 2009, when the Bears went 7-9 after Urlacher dislocated his wrist in Week 1 and was lost for the season.

The Bears are simply better prepared to win without No. 54 with Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije, Henry Melton, Corey Wootton, Stephen Paea and Shea McClellin up front. Urlacher said this is the best group of defensive linemen he has played with in his 13-year career.

“No doubt,” Urlacher said in October. “Talent-wise, this has to be the best.”

In 2009, the Bears had 34 sacks, including 24 by the defensive line. Adewale Ogunleye led the Bears with 6½. With Urlacher, the Bears had 34 and 32 sacks in 2010 and 2011, respectively.

This season, the Bears already have 32 sacks, including 29 from their defensive line. Pressure also leads to more interceptions. The Bears have 20 this season. They had only 13 in 2009.

The Bears ranked 23rd in rushing defense in 2009, allowing 126.4 yards per game. They’re 10th in rushing defense this season after being better than that most of the year.

“[The pass rush is] everything; we say it all the time,” Marinelli said. “We’ve got to stop the run now because if you don’t get the run handled, you never get the rush [going]. But it’s everything. It’s something we got to do.”

And they admittedly have to be better.

Whether it’s game plans, mobile quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson or more adept offensive lines, the Bears’ defensive front had trouble against the Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks and lost all three games.

“Overall, our pass rush has been good throughout the year,” coach Lovie Smith said.

“I know our guys are excited about getting a chance to play on turf. We’re a fast football team. We’ll need them to be at their best this week.”

Wootton said the defensive line has devoted time to fundamentals this week.

“[The play of the defensive line is] essential,” Wootton said. “But especially now, we just have to pick it up because we haven’t been playing the way we were at the start of the season or the first eight, nine, 10 games.

“We’re going back to the fundamentals — what we were doing earlier in the season. We just have to do that to be successful.”

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