A Different Bears Team Faces Seattle

Sunday's rematch with the Seahawks won't be the same game as the 37-6 Bears blowout on Oct. 1 for a lot of reasons, and the biggest might be the absence of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris. Harris had two sacks, two quarterback hurries and five solo tackles in that game, but a torn hamstring on Dec. 3 ended his season and, in the opinion of some, dashed the Bears' Super Bowl dreams.

At the time of Harris' injury, the Bears' defense was No. 1 in the league in points allowed, No. 2 in interception percentage, third-down efficiency and in total yards, passing yards and first downs allowed.

Although the Bears still possess one of the NFL's best defenses, their ranking dropped in almost every category without Harris. They finished the regular season No. 3 in points, No. 5 in total yards, 11th in passing yards and fifth in interception percentage.

Not even the most optimistic Bear would suggest that the team didn't miss Harris while he was having surgery and doing preliminary rehab. And he missed the team. Even though he's been welcomed back, Harris knows he's still not really part of the program.

"It's not (like you're) an outsider, but when you're on injured reserve it's not the same," he said. "You don't want it to be the same. That's kind of why you work so hard to get back, so I can fit back in with the guys. The loyalty is there from myself to my teammates, but it's not the same when you're not healthy, trying to come in here and hang out with everybody.

"I'm like a wounded lion right now; I'm weak. So I don't need to slow these guys down. The pack goes on, and I'll be behind them waving and stuff, but we'll move on, and I'll be back soon."

Although he's only back in the locker room, Harris is doing what he can to help. It has been a tough four weeks for the Bears without him, as they allowed 372.5 yards of total offense per game, which is 104.3 more than it permitted in 12 games with Harris in the lineup. But it was a tougher four weeks for Harris, who isn't expected back on the field until training camp in late July.

"I'm over it, but at first it was extremely difficult," he said. "All I can do now is be here and support my teammates and that's what I'm doing. Just talking to them, helping them with the game plan. I was there when they played those guys, so I can help out with the little things, the alignments of the offensive linemen and the schemes of how the offense works. I'll try to help out a little bit with what helped me be successful against that offense. I'll just be there for moral support."

The Seahawks' offense will be much more loaded for Bear Sunday at noon than it was the first time around, when it played without 2005 league MVP running back Shaun Alexander and tight end Jerramy Stevens.

The Bears sacked Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck five times back in October, picked him off twice and permitted just 230 total yards. But Seattle is healthier this time around and the Bears are without Harris and Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown. Bears nose tackle Ian Scott said the Bears can duplicate their earlier effort, but not without a supreme effort.

"Everybody here can make football plays, and we're going to have to be real good," Scott said. "They didn't give up any sacks last week to Dallas, and (Hasselbeck) does a great job moving around the pocket and avoiding the pass rush. If we don't continue to get after him as hard as possible, he can make a lot of plays."

NOTES, QUOTES

Record-setting return specialist Devin Hester was one of four Bears named to the Associated Press all-pro team Monday. Hester, who returned an NFL-record six kicks for touchdowns as a rookie, was joined by middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, center Olin Kreutz and kicker Robbie Gould. Hester received 48 1/2 of 50 votes by a national panel of sports writers and broadcasters. Only three players in the league got more votes than Hester. Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson, Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor and Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey were all unanimous choices.

"Right now I'm just trying to stay focused," Hester said after Monday's practice. "We've got two games to go to get to the Super Bowl, and that's what we are looking forward to."

The Bears had seven players voted to the Pro Bowl, which pits the AFC vs. the NFC. The more prestigious all-pro team combines players from both conferences. Special-teams coordinator Dave Toub used Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo as an example for his players Monday. Romo fumbled the snap on what would have been a go-ahead field goal with 1:19 left in Dallas' 21-20 wild-card playoff loss on Saturday.

"It's important," Toub said. "I talk to guys about that all the time, how special teams, any one play could either win a game or lose a game for you. That was a perfect example."

As the Bears' holder for place-kicks, punter Brad Maynard can empathize with Romo. "I felt for Tony," Maynard said. "I know the situation he's in. Holding looks easy and is easy if you're 100 percent focused. Those things happen for some reason. It put a reminder in the back of my head that you can't take it for granted, and I need to focus extra hard this week."

If Dallas would have outlasted the Seahawks last Saturday, then Sunday's game at Soldier Field would have pitted Bears running back Thomas Jones against his brother. Julius, the Cowboys' running back, who rushed for 112 yards on 22 carries against Seattle.

"He was very upset," Thomas said. "He played well; he played hard. It came down to the end. It's hard to lose like that, but that's the way it is in the playoffs. It's a game of inches, and we have to really eliminate all the mistakes because at the end of the game, whatever mistakes you made, will come back to haunt you."

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

--CB Charles Tillman (back), who missed the final two regular-season games, returned to practice on Monday.

--FB Jason McKie (ankle), who missed the last regular-season game, returned to practice Monday.

--SS Todd Johnson (ankle) should be healthy for Sunday's game and should at least get some playing time and could start after playing in just one of the final five games and not starting any of them.

--RB Thomas Jones was fourth on the Bears with 36 catches but averaged just 4.3 yards per reception.

--PK Robbie Gould was named to the AP all-pro team after hitting 32 of 36 field goals.

REPORT CARD AFTER 16 GAMES:

PASSING OFFENSE: C-plus --
QB Rex Grossman was wildly inconsistent, posting seven games with a passer rating of more than 100, but in six other games he was intercepted 18 times. Muhsin Muhammad is no longer a quality go-to receiver, but he's solid. Speedy Bernard Berrian provides a big-play dimension but can disappear for long periods at a time. TE Desmond Clark had a few big games and many others where he was no factor.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus -- Thomas Jones remains the starter, but it's becoming increasingly obvious that backup Cedric Benson is the stronger runner. Both averaged exactly 4.1 yards per carry, but Jones got twice as many carries over the course of the season, although in the final five games, Benson had slightly more carries.

PASS DEFENSE: B-plus -- The Bears were No. 1 in average gain allowed per pass play and No. 5 in interception percentage, as nickel back Ricky Manning Jr. and CB Charles Tillman each had five picks. The pass rush was outstanding early but tapered off later in the season after Tommie Harris suffered a season-ending hamstring injury and Tank Johnson missed two games because of legal problems.

RUSH DEFENSE: B -- The Bears were gouged by several teams (Dolphins, Giants, Viking), but they held 1 opponents under 105 yards. Pro Bowl LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs made most of the highlight plays, but the DT rotation of Tommie Harris, Tank Johnson, Ian Scot and Alfonso Boone deserves a lot of credit.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A - PK Robbie Gould hit 24 straight FG's to start the season and RS Devin Hester set an NFL record with six kick-return touchdowns, and both were voted to the all-pro team. Coverage ace Brendon Ayanbadejo was a Pro Bowl pick.

COACHING: B --
The Bears benefited from a weak division, a weak conference and the weakest schedule in the NFL. They capitalized by securing home field throughout the NFC playoffs, but if they don't advance further than last year's divisional-round loss, the season will be a disappointment.


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