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Chris Harris’ importance to Bears underscored by secondary’s performance

An NFC scout says Bears safety Chris Harris is leader who knows where everyone is supposed line up. | Jonathan

An NFC scout says Bears safety Chris Harris is a leader who knows where everyone is supposed to line up. | Jonathan Daniel~Getty Images

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:28AM

In April 2010, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo executed one of his best offseason moves by trading linebacker Jamar Williams to the Carolina Panthers for safety Chris Harris.

Harris started all 16 games last season, intercepted a career-high five passes and was an All-Pro selection.

The Bears haven’t shown much interest in signing him to an extension, but they might want to reconsider, given how sorely they’ve missed him the last two games. Sidelined with an injured left hamstring, Harris has reinforced his importance to the Bears’ defense with his absence.

And as dismal as their secondary has looked, imagine if the Bears hadn’t signed two-time Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather.

‘‘Clearly, it would be naïve to think you can pluck a starter of that caliber out of the defense and say, ‘Oh, they’re fine,’  ’’ Fox analyst Brian Billick said. ‘‘In that defense, [the position is] huge. It’s instrumental.’’

An NFC scout said what the Bears miss most without Harris are his leadership and his ability to line everyone up. Given his experience in the scheme, Harris has a command of the defense, knowing where everyone is supposed to be and how the opponent will attack them.

While he’s not nearly the athlete Major Wright or Meriweather is, Harris makes up for that deficiency with his intelligence and instincts.

Arguably the biggest play the defense has given up this season emphasizes what Harris provides. In the second quarter against the New Orleans Saints, receiver Devery Henderson got a step on Wright and avoided rookie Chris Conte en route to a 79-yard touchdown.

It’s understandable why Conte might not be ready to contribute because he was a third-round pick in April. But Wright, a third-round pick in 2010, was expected to be the clear-cut starter this season after the Bears opted not to re-sign Danieal Manning.

Wright, though, appears to have trouble with recognition and still doesn’t look comfortable with the scheme.

Meriweather appears to be coming around, but the Bears are going to have to make some decisions. Meriweather and Harris have contracts that expire after this season. So while the Bears don’t like to invest in that position, they might not have another choice, unless they think Conte and Wright are locked in for the next couple of seasons.

On Wednesday, linebacker Lance Briggs said getting Harris back is ‘‘crucial. He’s a guy who helps us go. He’s a general back there.’’

But indications are that Harris might miss the game next Sunday against the Detroit Lions and possibly the one after that against the Minnesota Vikings.

Payton’s back

Former Sports Illustrated senior writer Jeff Pearlman created quite a buzz last week with his new book about Walter Payton, Sweetness: The Hero No One Knew.

Pearlman has insisted there’s plenty of positive in the 460-page book, which he wrote after conducting 670-plus interviews. But part of why it has generated so much attention is because the excerpt that was published in Sports Illustrated focused on negative things, such as Payton’s infidelity and abuse of pain-killers and laughing gas.

‘‘It pissed me off,’’ Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher told me. ‘‘I never met Walter, but I hold him in a high regard because the guys who worked here with him – the guys that I trust and I’m around all the time – tell me how great a guy he was, what he did for people.

‘‘No one is perfect. We know that. We all have our screw-ups. I’m No. 1 on that list. But you know what? He was a good man, and to come out and say this now hurts his family.’’

Bears coach Lovie Smith said he hasn’t read the excerpt but was informed of some of the details.

‘‘I just know this: There’s one perfect man that I know of — only one — and I’ve heard about him,’’ Smith said, referring to Jesus Christ. ‘‘Besides that, there aren’t any. If you keep searching, you could find out a lot of things about people.’’

Quick hits

Rookie right tackle Gabe Carimi went to a 10 a.m. service Thursday for Rosh Hashanah. Carimi, who is Jewish, has been ruled out for the game Sunday.

◆ Quarterback Jay Cutler has been sacked eight times in the fourth quarter, the most in the NFL, according to STATS.

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