Decisions to make

In the wake of an injury epidemic among starters, several Bears rookies and other young players rode to the rescue. <P> But what happens to them when the veterans return?

"We'll have to evaluate that as guys get healthy," coach Dick Jauron said. "The longer that any player has to perform, the better he performs, the better his chances of staying active are. A number of these players have performed well. In the normal course of a season, what will happen is that the injuries sort of take care of a lot of those issues. If they don't, then we'll have some decisions to make.

"If they keep making plays, it's very difficult to make a guy inactive that's been on that field making plays, especially when you're winning. You start winning football games, it's very hard to sit a guy down who's contributed to a victory."

Three of the Bears' leading tacklers in the 24-16 victory over the Lions were strong safety Bobby Gray, weak-side linebacker Joe Odom and defensive tackle Alfonso Boone, all normally backups who started because of injuries to first-teamers. Gray was in for Mike Green, Odom for Warrick Holdman and Boone for Keith Traylor. Odom is a rookie, Gray is in his second year, and Boone his third.

It will be difficult to sit any of them, although injured starters generally regain their spots when healthy. But Boone, Gray and Odom will not disappear from the playing field. Boone will rotate playing time with Bryan Robinson and Traylor and Gray and Odom could see time in sub packages. At the very least, they will provide experienced backups, which makes the team deeper and better in the future.

Gray flew around like a wrecking ball, taking special interest in Lions wideout Az-Zahir Hakim and providing an intimidation factor that has been missing from the Bears' secondary for most of the last two years.

Boone, who showed flashes in the past, started his fourth straight game Sunday and has been one of the most improved players on the team.

"He's becoming a starting defensive tackle," Jauron said of Boone, who was not impressive in five starts last season after Ted Washington was hurt. "Booney has gotten better almost every single week. He's made plays in consecutive games now, a number of plays. He's a guy that can constantly improve. He's got some physical tools to work with, you can't teach that size and strength. He's gaining experience every single snap and every single practice. It's a valuable year to this point for Alfonso Boone."

So, too for Odom, who started his third straight game while Warrick Holdman continues to nurse a sprained ankle. When Holdman returns, he'll regain his starting job, but Odom's performance will provide insurance.

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