Bears' defense gets older, not better

The heart and soul of the team's run to the Super Bowl two years has become a big weakness. Former standouts like Brian Urlacher and Tommie Harris are among the players who are in decline.

Assuming the Bears don't make the playoffs, and it's almost a lock that they won't, they have a much bigger problem on the horizon than their absence in the postseason.

First things first. Here's how the Bears can be eliminated from the playoff picture before Monday night's 7:30 kickoff at Soldier Field in their 176th regular-season meeting with the Packers:

It would take victories by the Vikings, who are 3 1/2-point favorites at home over the Falcons on Sunday; the Cowboys, who are 4-point favorites at home Saturday night against the Ravens; the Bucs, who are 4-point favorites at home against the Chargers; and the Eagles, who are 3 1/2-point favorites on the road against the Redskins.

In that scenario, the Vikings would clinch the NFC North at 10-5, since the worst they could do is finish with the same 10-6 record as the Bears, who would lose in a tiebreaker. The Cowboys and Bucs also would move to 10-5, meaning they could do no worse than finish with the same record as the Bears, who would also lose to Dallas and Tampa Bay in tiebreakers.

But the situation that must be addressed as soon as this season ends is the state of the defense, which, despite all the money that's been lavished on it, is getting worse, not better.

The Bears' defense is 17th in yards allowed, tied for 15th in points allowed, 28th in passing yards allowed and 25th in sack percentage — not the numbers of an up-and-coming group.

In the same categories last season, the Bears finished 28th, 16th, 27th and sixth.

Back in 2006, when the Bears went to Super Bowl XLI, they were No. 5 in yards allowed, No. 3 in points allowed, No. 11 in passing yards allowed, and No. 16 in sacks, with almost all of the same players.

But they're not getting better, they're just getting older. Most of the starters on defense have already gotten much wealthier, but they obviously haven't been more productive, and in many cases their performance is sliding.

According to team statistics, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher had 185 tackles in 2006, 158 in 2007 and is on pace for 114 this year. He had five interceptions and five sacks last season; he's got two picks and no sacks this season.

Tommie Harris had 48 sacks in 2006, 43 in 2007 and is on pace for 30 this season. If he has chronic knee problems at 25, his future doesn't look bright. Oh, by the way, Anthony Adams has played in just seven games this season and started only twice, but he has the same number of tackles (26) as Harris, who has started 11 games and played in 12.

Does anyone think cornerbacks Nate Vasher and Charles Tillman are getting better? Vasher's performance and his health have deteriorated so badly that no one would be surprised if he were cut before next season. Vasher had eight interceptions in his Pro Bowl year of 2005, when he was known as "The Interceptor." The next season he had three picks, and in the past two seasons, he's had a total of two, as he missed 12 games in 2007 with a groin injury and eight games this season with hand injuries. He ended both seasons on injured reserve.

What was a youthful, promising and improving defense two years ago, has turned into an aging, underachieving and declining group in need of a facelift.

And that's supposed to be the strength of this team.

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