Replacing the Irreplaceable

Brian Urlacher has been to more Pro Bowls and Tommie Harris is making a case as the best defensive tackle in football, but no player is more indispensible on defense than Mike Brown. The hard-hitting safety will miss the rest of the season after having surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right foot. Todd Johnson, your number has been called.

Despite leaving the Arizona desert with an unblemished 6-0 record, the Bears had very little reason to feel good about themselves following last Monday night's matchup with the Cardinals.

Quarterback Rex Grossman took a curious step back, turning the ball over six times - four interceptions and two lost fumbles - against a defense that entered the game ranked 29th in the NFL against the pass. A running game that was making strides did very little against an undersized Arizona defensive front, as neither Thomas Jones nor Cedric Benson was much of a factor. And although they made the plays down the stretch necessary to escape with a win, the defense had no answer for wideout Anquan Boldin and allowed 20 first-half points to rookie QB Matt Leinart.

But throw all that information out the window because the biggest news came a day later.

Safety Mike Brown, the play-making Pro-Bowler and unquestioned leader of the defense, tore ligaments in his right foot and will miss the rest of the season on injured reserve.

Brown made his presence felt in the ballgame late in the third quarter, scooping up a Leinart fumble and dancing three yards for a touchdown to shift the momentum of the game. Few players in the league seem to have a nose for the football like he does. Brown has now scored seven defensive TDs in his career, an all-time Bears record.

But just a few plays into the fourth quarter, Brown got his foot tangled up in a dogpile and could not break free. He grimaced in pain as his body was twisted in unnatural fashion, but there was nothing he could do. Brown left the field on a stretcher and was on crutches after the game.

After being a model of health his first four seasons - he started 63 of 64 games to begin his career - the former Cornhusker missed 18 of 32 games from 2004-05 with various lower leg injuries. Brown knew he had to make a change and completely altered his offseason training regimen, focusing more on flexibility and core strength. Despite coming into training camp feeling better than ever, he will miss the final 10 games of 2006 and is on IR for the second time in three years.

Brown is a smart player and knows what is going to be said about him sustaining yet another injury, but he disputes the claim that his body is breaking down.

"I know people are going to say 'injury-prone,'" Brown said. "All the injuries that I've had, they don't relate to each other. I just happened to be stuck in a pile that no player wants to be stuck in that situation. It's a bad situation to be in. I couldn't get my foot up out of the turf. All the weight came down. I'm just fortunate it's just my foot and not something like my knee is gone and ligaments and all that."

Perhaps nobody understands what Brown's absence means more than head coach Lovie Smith, who was quite frank when asked about the significance of losing his defensive captain.

"It's a severe blow," Smith said. "I think you all know what Mike means to our football team. He's just a special player, and I might add that he was having an outstanding game. He got a game ball. That's a big blow to us, but injuries do happen."

First in line to replace the irreplaceable Brown is Todd Johnson, a fourth-year player out of Florida. A wonderful special teams player who has started 12 games at safety in his career - predominantly when Brown has been out with various injuries - he isn't afraid to lay the lumber to opponents. However, he lacks Brown's coverage skills and could be exposed in the passing game.

No matter how well he plays with Brown sidelined for the rest of the season, Johnson knows he has some big shoes to fill.

"You can't really replace his leadership and his presence," Johnson said. "He spoke to the defensive backs and said the train has to go on."

The train has to go on, indeed, but this defense wasn't quite the same at the end of last season when Brown was out with an Achilles' injury. Johnson and the rest of his secondary mates must pick up the slack if the Bears want to keep their Super Bowl hopes alive.


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