Fab Five

In only two games over the last 12 years have the Bears had the luxury of putting five Pro Bowl players on the field at the same time -- but Sunday at Soldier Field against the Redskins could be the third.

Cornerback Jerry Azumah, who made his first Pro Bowl appearance in February as a kickoff returner, is scheduled to make his 2004 debut after a speedy recovery from early August neck surgery.

Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who's been to the Pro Bowl in each of his four previous NFL seasons, is expected to start after missing two games with a strained hamstring.

Center Olin Kreutz, a three-time Pro Bowl pick, is penciled in as the starter, even though he had arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow just over a week ago.

Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, who made his first trip to Hawaii after getting 15 sacks for the Dolphins last season, is the Bears' only completely healthy Pro Bowler. Maybe it has something to do with his missing training camp.

Guard Ruben Brown, who has been selected to play in the last eight Pro Bowls, rounds out the Pro Bowl five if he recovers quickly enough from last Friday's arthroscopic knee surgery. He and coach Lovie Smith believe he will.

Even if some of the Fab Five are less than 100 percent, their presence makes the Bears a better team, and it makes the players around them better. A healthy core of Pro Bowl players couldn't come at a better time for the Bears, who are poised to make themselves an NFC North contender by winning their next three games against teams with three victories combined.

Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said the most exciting aspect of last weekend's bye was looking forward to getting Urlacher and Azumah back on the field. Knowing Urlacher is next to him makes weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs, the Bears' leading tackler, a better player, according to Rivera.

"Lance plays better when Brian's the Mike (middle linebacker)," Rivera said. "When Brian's not the Mike, Lance tries to do way too much instead of just concentrating on what he does best."

With Urlacher back, the Bears will be able to play what they believe are their three best linebackers, including Hunter Hillenmeyer, who played so well filling in for Urlacher that he'll move over to strong-side linebacker this week. Hillenmeyer can't wait to be on the field with Urlacher and Azumah for the first time.

"You can't overstate the importance of those two guys," he said. "Getting two Pro Bowlers back is a huge advantage. You're getting a middle linebacker who is one of the cornerstones of your team back, and a guy who is a playmaker like Jerry, both as a return man and as a corner and a nickel. Those are key roles on our defense."

Ogunleye has just one sack thus far, but with opponents focusing on stopping him, seven other teammates have gotten to the quarterback, and as a team, the Bears are already halfway to last season's sack total of 16, just one more than Ogunleye had by himself in 2003.

Azumah has been a presence even while he was injured. Even if he just plays nickel back against the Redskins, he brings something special to the defense.

"We expect a Pro Bowl player coming back," Smith said. "He's stayed in shape, and he's really stayed into the game. If you look at most of the highlights, you see Jerry somewhere in it if you come to the sideline. He's really stayed involved with the team. That's the type of player we expect when we get him back on the field, but we will work him in slowly."

Considering that Kreutz is the only offensive line starter last season who is in the same position this season, his importance to the continuity of the group can't be overestimated. And Brown has been a teacher and a steadying influence on some of the Bears' younger offensive linemen. That's especially true of 24-year-old left tackle Qasim Mitchell, who lines up next to Brown. Mitchell started just two games before this season but has performed better than expected for an inexperienced free agent.

And with five Pro Bowl players in the lineup, the Bears might play better than anyone expects from a 1-3 team.

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