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Julius Peppers downgraded to doubtful for game vs. Vikings

Julius Peppers

Julius Peppers

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Updated: January 23, 2012 4:10AM

Even when Julius Peppers isn’t making a big impact, his redeeming value to the Bears is that he’s still Julius Peppers — as long as he’s on the field, an offense has to account for the fact that he could erupt at any time.

A quiet Peppers or an injured Peppers is better than no Peppers, which the Bears found out the hard way on Monday night. When Peppers left the game against the Detroit Lions for one play after he sprained his knee, Matt Stafford, dropping seven steps out of a shotgun snap, stepped up and threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson.

Now the Bears face the possibility of playing without Peppers for an entire game. Coach Lovie Smith purposefully opened his post-practice news conference Friday with the bad news that quickly reverberated all the way up to Minneapolis: ‘‘We’ve downgraded Julius Peppers to doubtful. He wasn’t able to do anything today. Still hopeful. When a guy doesn’t practice at all during the week, we’re not too optimistic. But we’ll see.’’

Smith’s pessimism was in stark contrast to teammate Israel Idonije’s optimism Thursday when he said confidently that ‘‘Julius will play.’’ After the Vikings’ Brett Favre started against the Bears two days after being listed as ‘‘out’’ last December, there’s no limit to the bounds of NFL gamesmanship.

Peppers’ injury only complicates matters for a defense already in flux as the Bears struggle to break a free fall from ninth in the NFL in total defense in 2010 to 28th this season. Starting defensive tackle Matt Toeaina (sprained knee) will not play against the Vikings. Reserve end Corey Wootton is still recovering from a broken hand. If Peppers can’t play, Henry Melton is expected to move from tackle to end, with Amobi Okoye starting alongside Anthony Adams at tackle.

The secondary is unsettled, as well. After the Bears gave up a third play of 73 yards or longer this season in Monday’s loss to the Lions, Smith has benched veteran safeties Chris Harris (strong) and Brandon Meriweather (free). Second-year safety Major Wright and rookie Chris Conte will start in their place.

Conte and Wright will be the fifth different pair of starting safeties in six games.

‘‘The No. 1 thing right now is we want to eliminate the big play, both in the run and the pass,’’ defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. ‘‘Coaches and players have got to get that cleaned up.’’

But Marinelli knows in his heart of hearts that that starts up front. In fact, that’s why the Bears were so confident about their defense coming into this season. Their line has everything going for it: experience, depth and versatility; a superstar in Peppers; a rising star in Melton; an up-and-comer in Wootton; and Marinelli, one of the most respected defensive line coaches in the NFL, to put it all together. It was one area where the Bears had the best chance to impose their will regardless of the opponent.

While Harris is paying the price, the safety issue might not be as overt if the defensive line had lived up to its own high expectations. The line was dominant in the opener against the Atlanta Falcons at Soldier Field — four sacks and a Peppers quarterback pressure that led to a fumble and Brian Urlacher’s return for a touchdown in a 30-12 victory. But the line has had minimal impact since then — four sacks and three tackles for loss in the four games.

What happened? Nobody has an answer.

‘‘I don’t think it’s a matter of just the defensive line or one position,’’ Idonije said. ‘‘As a unit, we just haven’t put ourselves in position to really play at the level we’re capable of.

‘‘It affects all positions. Whenever we play, it just gets back to us playing our style of football and being really sound and we’ll be better. And that starts this week.’’

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