LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) -The Chicago Bears insist they were built to withstand injuries. Well, here comes the test.
Former Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown and starting defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek are out with season-ending knee injuries, but the Bears' expectations remain the same: A dominant defense. Another NFC championship.
They'll just have to do it with Danieal Manning at free safety and veteran Darwin Walker at nose tackle, starting with Sunday's home opener against Kansas City.
``I didn't anticipate playing any less,'' said Walker, acquired in a trade with Buffalo.
And his role won't be diminishing anytime soon. Nor will Manning's.
Not after Brown and Dvoracek were carted off the field together during the fourth quarter of last week's 14-3 loss at San Diego. It was an ominous beginning to a season full of promise.
Brown's year ended when Chargers fullback Lorenzo Neal wrapped his right arm around his neck and threw him to the ground. Dvoracek got injured on a kickoff moments later.
Besides losing Brown and Dvoracek, the offense went nowhere and the Bears took some more hits after the game.
Chargers linebacker Matt Wilhelm told the North County Times that former Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera described quarterback Rex Grossman as a ``mental midget.'' And linebacker Shaun Phillips essentially called running back Cedric Benson soft in an interview with Sirius Satellite Radio on Tuesday, saying a little trash talk and a few hits rattle him.
Benson, who ran for 42 yards and fumbled once, laughed off Phillips' comment. But Grossman rushed to his teammate's defense.
``Obviously, Cedric is one of the hardest runners in the league,'' he said. ``How many times have you seen him come into the hole and run somebody over? I mean he broke (Texans safety Glenn Earl's) ankle in Houston.''
As for what Rivera allegedly said, Grossman shrugged it off. And Rivera, who now coaches Chargers linebackers, told Chicago radio station WSCR-AM on Wednesday that he ``would never say anything like that'' and said the quarterback is ``mentally a strong player.''
Either way, the Bears have more pressing issues.
This was the third season-ending injury in four seasons for Brown, whose future with the team may be in jeopardy. Even when he made the Pro Bowl in 2005, he missed the final four regular-season games with a calf injury before returning for the playoffs.
In Week 6 last season, he returned a fumble three yards for a touchdown in the third quarter to spark the comeback as Bears rallied from a 20-point deficit to beat Arizona by one. But he limped off the field later in the game with ligament damage in his right foot that required surgery.
The run defense suffered with the hard-hitting strong safety out, and the Bears lost another key player when Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris went down with a hamstring injury in early December. Chicago wasn't the same after that, even though it advanced to the Super Bowl.
``Mike Brown is like a defensive coordinator in a helmet,'' Harris said. ``You know the secondary is secure all the time with him back there. It's difficult playing without him.''
The Bears had no one to replace him last year, but they appear to be in a better position this time. Brown had already moved to free safety after the team acquired Adam Archuleta in the offseason, and Manning is one of the fastest players on the team.
``The coaches have a lot of confidence in him, which means he's doing something right,'' linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said.
The Bears feel the same way about Walker.
He has 26 1/2 sacks over the past five years, fourth-most among defensive tackles during that span, and Chicago gave him a five-year, $25 million contract shortly after that trade with Buffalo. The Bears did not hand him a starting job, though.
Dvoracek got it when Tank Johnson was released and held onto it after missing his rookie year with a foot injury. While he showed the ability to be an effective run-stopper, Walker brings a different dimension. Now, opponents may have a tough time deciding which tackle to double team.
``That's a wonderful thing,'' Walker said. ``We talk about that all the time. We can make each other better. I'm looking forward to this opportunity.''
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