Burden to Bear

Because the defense remains one of the NFL's youngest, with no starter over 28, expectations will be high this season.

Considering that major injuries suffered by defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, safety Mike Brown and cornerbacks Jerry Azumah and Charles Tillman cost that group a combined 37 starts last season, the Bears' defense played fairly well in 2004.

"I believe this defense can be better," said coordinator Ron Rivera, whose group was No. 13 in points allowed last season. "Can we be a top 10? I believe we can, I really do, if we can accomplish our four primary objectives each game: That's holding opponents to 17 points or less, two or more turnovers a game, scoring on defense and putting the offense in scoring position, and four three-and-outs.

"We have an opportunity to be a very solid football team; a very solid defense, if we can keep the guys healthy. We saw flashes when we had Brian Urlacher out there and Wale out there and Mike Brown out there. We'd win a few more games."

Ogunleye played on some dominant Dolphins defenses in three years in Miami.

He doesn't know if the Bears' young defense is ready to be compared to those Dolphins teams, but he sees some potential.

"It was a more veteran group there, more of a group that was already established, and I was able to come in and contribute as a young guy," said Ogunleye, who had a combined 24 1/2 sacks in 2002 and '03 playing on the other end of the d-line from Pro Bowler Jason Taylor. "Here I think it's a lot more young talent, where the potential is there, but it's like a light switch that's turned off. If you don't turn it on, you're not using it.

"We have to find a way to use our potential, and I think that with the coaching staff we have and the players we have we'll be able to reach our potential."

Rivera loses just one starter from last season, cornerback R.W. McQuarters, who was released in a salary-cap move. Because injuries forced some backups into larger roles in '04, the Bears still return 20 defensive players who started at least one game last season; 18 who started at least twice.

It is an experienced group despite its youthfulness. Brown and Urlacher will be entering their sixth season as starters, even though both are just 27. Linebacker Lance Briggs will enter his third year as a starter, and he's just 24. Not only are the starters young, so are the top backups. No player on the defensive side of the ball is older than 29, with the exception of cornerback Todd McMillon, who is primarily a special-teams player.

So, while Rivera expects a bump in productivity, he realizes that the defense may still e a work in progress and destined for bigger and better things further down the road.

"I think they are a couple of years away from peaking," Rivera said. "If we keep everybody and continue to grow within this system, I would love to emulate what Coach (Lovie) Smith was a part of down in Tampa (as linebackers coach from 1996-2000), or what I was part of in Philadelphia (as linebackers coach from 1999-2003) or even what Coach was involved with in St. Louis. I think we can be that type of a defense that can dominate."

Although the starting lineup appears fairly well set five weeks before the start of training camp, Rivera wants to keep some uncertainty among his players.

"I think you have to create a little situation where they're a little bit uncomfortable," Rivera said. "If you can do that, get them feeling uncomfortable, they'll push each other and they'll push themselves."

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