Arrow is Pointing up on Defense

No matter how bad things got offensively in 2004, defensively, there is hope. Despite playing without the heart and soul of the unit for much of the season, Ron Rivera's unit is young and should only get better with experience.

The defense finished No. 13 in points allowed and No. 1 in third-down efficiency even though they struggled to stop the run when four-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher was out for seven games.

While the group also didn't present much of a pass rush, Adewale Ogunleye played hurt most of the season and contributed just 5.5 sacks in return for his $33 million contract. Free safety Mike Brown, the quarterback of the secondary, was lost for the season in Game 2, Charles Tillman, the team's best cover corner, missed half the season with a fractured leg and Jerry Azumah sat out the first quarter of the season because of neck surgery.

The good news is that everyone will be back since all the starters and the top backups are signed through next season.

Of the Bears' starters at the end of the season, four were 27, three were 23, two were 24, defensive tackle Tommie Harris is 21 and defensive end Alex Brown is 25. Of the top 20 players on defense, including injured players, tackle Alfonso Boone is the oldest, and he just turned 29 on Jan. 11.

"As you're building a defense, you have to start up front," coach Lovie Smith said. "Everything we do is based on getting pressure from our four-man front, and we feel like we have the player that we want at every position across the defensive line, and we really like our depth, also. Defensively, as a whole, Urlacher (26) is the linebacker that we want to lead us for many years, and Lance Briggs (24) is also a player that we really like."

In addition to solid defense, this group provided more scoring than the offense at times. Six different players (Mike Brown, Jerry Azumah, Nathan Vasher, Michael Haynes, R.W. McQuarters and Lance Briggs) scored defensive touchdowns.

The Bears could go into next year with a starting lineup of LE Adewale Ogunleye, LT Tommie Harris, RT Ian Scott, RE Alex Brown, SLB Hunter Hillenmeyer, MLB Brian Urlacher, WLB Lance Briggs, LCB Charles Tillman, RCB Jerry Azumah, FS Mike Brown and SS Mike Green.

If everyone is healthy the only spot the Bears may look to improve either in the draft or free agency is strong-side linebacker. Four of Hillenmeyer's 11 starts came there and he played adequately. However, the Bears will likely try to upgrade the depth at linebacker somewhere in draft. Marcus Reese and Joe Odom are currently the projected backups and neither distinguished themselves when given a chance to start in '04.

Be sure to check the Senior Bowl reports on the lower portion of the site to track all the prospects at the weeklong scouting event.

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