Azumah out 3-4 months

A week ago Jerry Azumah went down with an apparent stinger, but after two MRIs the cornerback has been diagnosed with a herniated disk in his neck. He will have surgery Saturday to repair the damage and is expected to miss at least three to four months.

The injury wasn't considered serious initially, but both Azumah and the team agreed he should seek a second opinion. He went to Pittsburgh Monday to see a specialist and have a second set of tests performed.

Everything seemed to be in order as Azumah returned to Bourbonnais Tuesday and partook in non-contact drills. However everything changed when results from the second MRI came back for evaluation.

"We're always going to err on the side of caution when it comes to our players," said GM Jerry Angelo. "The first MRI was something that was positive, but we felt a second opinion was in order. We sent him to Pittsburgh. The doctor did a different angle with an MRI and found something that looked a little suspicious through more research. It was what we hoped it wasn't."

While the Bears don't plan to put Azumah on Injured Reserve immediately, if he's unable to return until late November or early December for all intensive purposes his season is over.

"You really can't replace Jerry, so we're not going to pretend that we can do that," Angelo said. "We have some good players on our team that are just going to have to pick up the slack."

Azumah's injury weakens the strongest position on the team and also takes away the Bears biggest offensive weapon. Azumah not only tied for the team lead in interceptions a year ago, with four, he's coming off a Pro Bowl campaign as a kick returner.

"He's one of our best players so I can't sugarcoat it, we're going to miss him," Lovie Smith said.

At the start of training camp the most talked about competition was between Azumah and R.W. McQuarters for the right to start opposite Charles Tillman, but the injury has made the decision for the coaching staff.

"Competition is competition and that's what this league is about, being competitive. I hate to see Zoom go out like that, but injuries do happen," McQuarters said.

Still McQuarters didn't just fall into the job; he's had a solid off-season that included dropping 12 pounds.

"Right now he's the guy and he should be the guy," said defensive coordinator Ron Rivera of McQuarters. "He worked hard all mini-camp, all the OTAs and has continued to work hard and has done a pretty good job."

The nickel back is now the question in the secondary. The Bears have a few options to fill the void left by Azumah's absence. Starting strong safety Mike Green, who has played cornerback in the past, appears to be the first option.

Green would move from strong safety to corner in nickel situations, meaning Bobby Gray would be a situational player. Todd McMillon and Nathan Vasher are also options, but it appears the Bears want more experience at the position then a rookie would have to offer.

The Bears brass believes they have a kick returner on the roster and will be able to fill the opening within. Although Vasher was more of a punt returner at Texas, he has some experience on kickoffs. Fellow rookie, Bernard Berrian, is also a candidate for the role. He averaged 23.1 yards attempt at Fresno State.

"We feel pretty good about those two but they're not Azumah. But in time you never know," Smith said.

As the injury list grows into double-digits there has been discussion within the media that Smith is running his players too hard, too fast. In fairness to Smith, Azumah's injury came during a one-on-one coverage drill, which is generally non-contact. Either way, Smith is by no means changing his philosophy.

"If there's criticism with it, they'll be able to criticize us for a long time because that's what our practices will be," Smith said. "We're going to continue to practice hard like that."

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