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Bears still will rely on defensive vets next season

Brian Urlacher (above) Lance Briggs Julius Peppers Charles Tillman need little help. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Brian Urlacher (above), Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and Charles Tillman need a little help. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 1, 2012 8:09AM

The Bears’ window of opportunity appears to be closing rapidly with their defensive stars getting older and the Packers and Lions getting better, but linebacker Brian Urlacher still believes they’re championship contenders.

‘‘We feel like we have the talent to do it and the players to do it,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘I think we’ve shown that. We have all the talent we need to get where we need to go. We’ve just got to put it together and do it.’’

Despite his optimism, Urlacher couldn’t avoid acknowledging one factor the Bears can’t control: The Packers are not only younger but better. He could’ve said the same for the Lions, who overcame their own precociousness to make the playoffs.

‘‘It just makes it harder now because Green Bay’s so frickin’ good,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘They’re in our division, they’re the best team in the NFL the last two years, so it’s going to be a big hurdle for us to get over.’’

Urlacher making his eighth Pro Bowl at 33 and linebacker Lance Briggs making his seventh at 30 are great accomplishments. But they also represent a wasted opportunity in that the Bears didn’t make the playoffs while they still were playing at a high level.

‘‘While we still can walk around?’’ Briggs said when asked if there’s a sense of urgency to win a Super Bowl while he and Urlacher still are playing well. ‘‘That’s the most frustrating thing about seasons like this — and last year — being that close. It’s that we know we’re a good-enough team to get there.

As the Bears look toward 2012, their veteran core is the least of their concerns on defense. Besides Briggs and Urlacher, cornerback Charles Tillman was named to his first Pro Bowl. Defensive end Julius Peppers was voted an alternate for a solid if unspectacular season in which he leads the Bears with 10 sacks and 53 pressures.

But even if all four continue to play at the same level next season — when Urlacher will be 34, Peppers 32 and Briggs and Tillman 31 — the Bears still need help if the defense is going to be expected to carry as much of the load as it did this year, even with quarterback Jay Cutler healthy.

They got too little help this season. Few if any ‘‘supporting cast’’ members established themselves as potential Pro Bowl players. Defensive tackle Henry Melton, who has seven sacks, is a Pro Bowl alternate at 24. But even he was starkly inconsistent.

Rookie safety Chris Conte showed promise before suffering a season-ending injury. Nickel back D.J. Moore had three interceptions in the first half but suffered an injury and has none in the second half.

Others did their job, though some were exposed when the pressure on the defense became too much to bear — linebacker Nick Roach, defensive tackle Matt Toeaina, defensive end Israel Idonije, cornerback Tim Jennings and safety Major Wright.

But it was telling that coach Lovie Smith appeared to be stumped Friday when asked which younger players had stepped up this season.

‘‘Which of our younger players? Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers,’’ Smith said. ‘‘You’re talking about those . . . players? Or younger players?’’

Uh, young relative to football age. Like under 30.

‘‘Younger players . . .’’ Smith said with a pause. ‘‘We transitioned this year at the safety position, playing a rookie in Conte, Major Wright getting more reps. Our backup linebackers, of course, were new guys. Up front, Henry Melton moved into one of the main roles for our defense.

‘‘And some of our other positions, we have some players that have been to the Pro Bowl eight times, been to the Pro Bowl seven times. It’s just how it is. They played a little bit, but I still feel like they have a lot more football left to go.’’

No matter how hard he tried, the answer still came back to Urlacher, Briggs and Peppers. That pretty much tells you where the Bears’ defense stands heading into 2012.

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