GREEN BAY—It will be a rare sight for a Packers-Bears game on Monday night at Lambeau Field.
Neither Brian Urlacher nor Lance Briggs will be on the field for the Chicago defense. Two of the best linebackers over the past decade-plus in the NFC North, and in the entire NFC for that matter, won’t be suited up against the Bears’ biggest rival.
"It’s a little different not seeing Brian Urlacher out there. I'm not going to deny that," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said, referring to the film study and preparation this past week. "Brian was a great player for so many years, and even so now with Lance. Lance is so productive and instinctive."
Urlacher retired after last season, his 13th in the league, which ended with him injured. Briggs, a starter for the Bears since his rookie season in 2003, is out a month or more with a shoulder injury.
The two played together against the Packers 17 times over the past 10 seasons. Urlacher missed three games in that time (Week 17 in ’04, Week 14 in ’09 and Week 15 in ’12) and Briggs missed one (Week 16 in ’07), but the other was always out there. The two have combined for 10 interceptions, including one each returned for a score, against Green Bay.
To find the last time neither Urlacher nor Briggs suited up against the Packers, you have to go all the way back to 1999, the year before Urlacher was drafted.
The matchup at Lambeau that season ended with Chicago’s Bryan Robinson blocking a 28-yard field goal try by Ryan Longwell on the game’s final snap, giving the Bears a 14-13 victory and helping them salvage something from an otherwise rough 6-10 year. The Packers would finish 8-8, one spot ahead of Chicago in the division standings.
The Bears’ leading tacklers back then were linebacker Barry Minter and safety Tony Parrish.
“It will be different,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of walking up to the line of scrimmage on Monday night and not seeing Urlacher or Briggs looking back at him.
“It’s a credit to those guys how long they played. Brian, the years and years he played at a really high level, I loved the competition. Lance has been playing at a Hall of Fame level himself for years.”
Rodgers went on to say that Briggs, despite the respect of his peers, has probably never received “the due that he deserves” throughout a superb career. That was perhaps coming this year with Urlacher no longer around, but the shoulder injury has rudely interrupted his season, and that of the Bears’ defense.
Briggs is being replaced by rookie fourth-round draft pick Khaseem Greene, while the Bears are already on a second replacement for Urlacher, with rookie second-rounder Jon Bostic taking over for veteran D.J. Williams, who is on injured reserve.
The Bears simply don’t a have a Bears-like defense in 2013, ranking 27th in total defense and 29th in scoring defense. They have yet to hold anyone under 21 points.
“Change in personnel usually leads to change in production, one way or the other,” McCarthy said.
"That's really the challenge of what our offense has to go through. You have to get ready for new faces, new tendencies, new mannerisms, how they fit and so forth."
Where the Bears haven’t changed, however, is in the turnover department. They’re fifth in the league with 18 takeaways, and all 10 of their interceptions have come from the secondary, with three returned for touchdowns.
Starting cornerbacks Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman lead the way with three interceptions and two forced fumbles apiece, and Jennings has brought back two picks for scores. Tillman, of course, is a master at punching the ball out, with his 41 career forced fumbles tops in the NFL since he entered the league in 2003.
“I can’t say enough about the respect we have for Charles Tillman and Jennings and the whole crew and what they’ve been able to accomplish for years down there in Chicago,” McCarthy said. “Obviously our awareness is heightened. I’d like to think it’s high every week, but this group is exceptional.
“It’s what they do with the football after they do take it away.”
The Packers endlessly preach ball security, but they don’t hesitate to talk about it even more during Bears week, particularly in the passing game. Rodgers said receivers coach Edgar Bennett is always on his players to tuck the ball away, no different than when he was coaching the running backs.
“A friendly reminder from myself or an offensive lineman goes a long way as well,” Rodgers said. “Those guys know their role. They know how important it is to take care of the football, especially in division rivalries.
“We talked about that last week in Minnesota. We had a zero-turnover game and came out on top. We’ve got to do the same thing again this week.”
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