BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (AP) -Like an opposing receiver, the irony does not escape Mike Brown.
He looks back on last year's opener and sees defensive stops, turnovers at just the right time. He sees perhaps the best performance by the Bears' defense, even though Chicago lost 14-3 at San Diego in a sloppy game. And, of course, he sees a season crumbling.
``That was probably our best game on defense the whole year,'' said Brown, a former Pro Bowl safety. ``We were attacking, playing with a lot of enthusiasm, got some turnovers. We were playing really good defense. That was what we were going to expect the whole year long.''
Instead, it only lasted three quarters.
Brown and starting defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek were carted off the field with torn anterior cruciate ligaments in the left knee during the final period and the Bears never recovered. They added themselves to the long list of teams that faltered after losing the Super Bowl, staggering to a 7-9 record behind poor execution and injuries on both sides of the ball.
The defense kept absorbing hits after Brown and Dvoracek went down, with cornerback Nathan Vasher limited to four games by a groin injury and cornerback Charles Tillman, linebacker Lance Briggs, defensive end Mark Anderson, safety Adam Archuleta and tackle Darwin Walker all missing at least one game.
Star linebacker Brian Urlacher and defensive tackle Tommie Harris weren't pictures of health, either, although both played in all 16. Urlacher did it even though he had an arthritic back and needed minor neck surgery after the season while Harris, coming off a season-ending hamstring injury in 2006, was bothered by a sprained knee last year.
It all added up to this.
A defense that was one of the best in 2005 and 2006 allowed 354.7 yards per game and ranked 28th overall as opponents ran and passed at will while hanging onto the ball. Chicago led the NFL with 44 takeaways in 2006 but managed just 33 last season under new defensive coordinator Bob Babich, who moved up after Ron Rivera's contract wasn't renewed.
Now, with a healthy defense leading the way, the Bears believe they will show last season was nothing more than an aberration.
``I think that's just a great football saying - defense wins games, offense sells tickets,'' Tillman said, although it's unlikely many people have paid to see the Bears' offense over the decades.
Tillman acknowledged that with a grin, saying, ``I think offense sells a lot of tickets - NFL-wise, not our offense.''
There are more questions than answers on offense at the moment, starting at quarterback and continuing through every area but tight end.
Benched after an ineffective start and then sidelined late last season by a sprained ankle, Rex Grossman finds himself competing with Kyle Orton to start at quarterback. Whoever wins the job will be handing off to a rookie (Matt Forte) and a running back recovering from a serious knee injury (Kevin Jones) while throwing to a revamped receiving corps. Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad are gone, and in their place are Marty Booker, Brandon Lloyd and Devin Hester, who wants a new contract.
The only question on the other side is whether the defense can stay healthy.
``We're ready,'' Alex Brown said. ``Everybody's in good shape. If we can play hard and smart and with a sense of urgency, we should be OK.''
Urlacher said he's fine and the six-time Pro Bowler arrived at camp with a one-year extension reportedly worth $18 million. Briggs, Harris and Alex Brown also showed up with new deals. And Mike Brown arrived without a cast or crutches, a positive sign for a secondary that clearly is not the same when he's sidelined.
The ruptured ACL was the third season-ending injury in four seasons for Brown, who has missed 43 games in that stretch, and it came after he delivered several big plays against San Diego. Brown's interception of Philip Rivers and 27-yard return in the first quarter set up Robbie Gould's field goal, and he recovered a fumble later in the game. Then, Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal, who was blocking, wrapped his right arm around Brown's neck and threw him to the ground in the fourth quarter.
Brown's season was over. And, for a moment, Brown thought his career was, too.
``It probably lasted a day,'' he said.
Now, he's back. And the Bears believe they will be, too, with a healthy defense leading the way.
Notes: First-round draft pick Chris Williams, bothered the past few days by lower back stiffness, wasn't sure when he would return to practice. ``I don't think it's going to be a significant amount of time,'' he said.
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