By Steve Silverman
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The Chicago Bears are sweating.

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They have designs on challenging the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North and the Giants for conference superiority, but they may not make it to that lofty level.

They are trying to play it cool to the outside world, but when it was announced that middle linebacker Brian Urlacher had undergone a knee scope, there was plenty of reason to worry.

Specifically, Urlacher had the surgery to “clean up” his knee. They are saying that he will be ready to return to the lineup for the season opener against the Colts Sept. 9.

Perhaps they are right, but Urlacher’s age has to give head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli cause for concern. Urlacher is 34 and linebackers of that age who undergo surgery before the start of the season are not likely to start at full speed.

Urlacher will undoubtedly recover from the surgery, but if he was a 24-year-old linebacker, he might recover faster and be at full speed by the season opener. He may not be ready for the opener and he may have to take it slow. Barring any additional problems, he may not be at his best until three or four weeks into the season.

Urlacher is no longer the Bears’ best defensive player. Defensive Julius Peppers is the key to the Bears pass rush and is their best player. But Urlacher is the glue to the Bears defense. They are good without him, but they could be great if he can play a full season.

He’s essential to their success, much like these seven “glue” players around the league who are essential to their team’s defensive efforts.

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ILB David Harris, New York Jets – It may be Revis Island in the secondary, but Harris does not have to make any apologies for his play. He can make plays all over the field as his 5.0 sacks and four interceptions indicate. Harris is tough and nasty, but his best attribute may be able to diagnose what the offense is going to do and come up with the proper counter.

CB Corey Webster, New York Giants – The best thing about Webster is that he was able to start and play in all 16 games in a season in which the Giants had a lot of injuries to defensive backs. There were serious questions about Webster’s hands, but he answered some of them as he had six interceptions last year. The Giants need him to remain in the lineup and continue to play steady football.

DE Trent Cole, Philadelphia – Cole has the speed and inclination to cause havoc every time he steps on the field. He has had four season with 10 or more sacks and that makes him one of the most dependable Eagle players. On a defense that has its share of stars, Cole must remain in the lineup for the Eagles to have a shot in the NFC East.

DE John Abraham, Atlanta – Abraham has not slowed down at the age of 34 by more than a half-step. He is still one of the quickest pass rushers coming off the edge. He had 13.0 sacks in 2010 and followed up with 9.5 last year. When he comes around the corner, his ability to force the quarterback into mistakes is what gives the Falcons the bite they have on defense.

DE Brett Keisel, Pittsburgh Steelers – When you think of the Steelers 3-4 defense, you think of Troy Polamalu and James Harrison first. However, Keisel is a very underrated performer who is exceptional against the run and does a fine job putting pressure on quarterbacks. He has a knack for knocking down passes and is a key ingredient when the Steelers are able to shut down opposing offenses.

DT B.J. Raji, Green Bay Packers – The best player on the Packers’ defense is outside linebacker Clay Matthews. However, if Matthews gets double-teamed and can’t impact the game, the Packers need Raji to assert himself. He is strong and powerful and built like a refrigerator. His short legs are always churning and he can punish opposing running backs and force mistakes.

ILB Brian Cushing, Houston Texans – He is not a superstar, but it was his rise last year along with the strong play of defensive end J.J. Watt that allowed the Texans to allow Mario Williams to leave through free agency. Cushing can play in a 4-3 set-up or a 3-4 and he is an exceptional tackler. That’s a skill that is highly underrated and he helps give the Texans quite a bit of nastiness.

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Do you agree with Steve’s picks?  Let him hear your thoughts at — @ProFootballBoy.