Missing preseason can help or hinder

It benefited Jaguars' Jones-Drew but affected timing of Bears' Urlacher

Missing training camp and the preseason had different consequences for the face of the Bears and the face of the Jaguars.

For Maurice Jones-Drew, who sat out in a contract dispute, missing time was a benefit.

"I might be a little fresher, not taking those hits," said Jones-Drew, who had more rushing yards in his first three games than ever before in his career. "This is the fastest start I've ever had in running the ball. That's a big deal."

For Brian Urlacher, who sat out because of a knee injury, missing time was a detriment.

"I wanted to be out there," he said. "I felt I was behind, honestly."

What hurt Urlacher most was not going through his reads on a daily basis. It caused hesitation in his play.

"I was a little sloppy in the beginning," he said. "But I feel like I am getting better every week. I still do the same stuff I always have — there still are missed tackles. But now I'm putting myself in position to make those plays, which is a good thing."

Urlacher said he has made considerable strides in four weeks, but he also said he is definitely not all the way back.

Mentally, he is getting there. Physically, he estimates he is at 90 percent.

Scouts say Urlacher's speed in a straight line has not diminished. But he looks a little slower when he has to plant and redirect.

"Some people said it took them a full year to come back from this injury full speed, 100 percent," he said. "I'm further along than most people thought I would be. I keep feeling better every week."

To preserve Urlacher and help him along, Bears coach Lovie Smith decided to give him Thursdays off from practice. So Urlacher has taken up swimming on those days.

When he started out, he was swimming eight laps. Now he's up to 20. He said it probably takes him 15 or 20 minutes to complete 20 laps, but it definitely has helped his conditioning.

"It has been huge for me," he said. "I always liked swimming and it kicks my ass."

Urlacher also has concentrated on strengthening his left quadriceps muscle through weight training. He lifted all offseason in an attempt to build muscle around his damaged knee.

At 34 and coming off an injury, Urlacher might not be all he once was. But he hasn't stopped coming. And he hasn't stopped making progress.

Numbers gamesTakeaway Tillman

Charles Tillman, who had an interception Monday night, has been the best Bears defender at getting the ball away from the opponent in recent history — by a wide margin.

Between interceptions (31) and forced fumbles (30), Tillman has taken the ball away from an opponent 61 times in his 10-year career. That is an eye-popping average of one every 2.1 games.

The next closest Bears defender — Gary Fencik — is 16 behind Tillman. Fencik is credited with only seven forced fumbles but he probably had more than that.

Records on those were not kept before 1979, and they were kept poorly through the '80s. Forced fumbles statistics for purpose of this study were taken from Bears media guides.

Here are the Bears' top 10 in interceptions plus forced fumbles.

1. Tillman: 31-30-61.

2. Fencik: 38-7-45.

3. Richard Dent: 8-34-42.

4. Richie Petitbon: 37-*0-37.

5. Donnell Woolford: 32-3-35.

6. (tie) Mark Carrier: 20-10-30.

Brian Urlacher: 21-9-30.

8. Lance Briggs: 14-15-29.

9. Shaun Gayle: 14-12-26.

10. Walt Harris: 15-10-25.

* not available

Front office chessWhat might have been

As the Jaguars' left end, Jeremy Mincey will be trying to beat the Bears on Sunday in Jacksonville. But he could have been trying to beat the Jaguars.

The Bears tried to sign the free agent in the offseason, and at one point his agent told the Jaguars he was accepting the Bears' offer. But then the Jaguars came back in the eleventh hour with more guaranteed money, and Mincey chose to stay put.

How would the Bears have been different if Mincey had come to them?

His signing probably would not have affected their draft plan.

General manager Phil Emery has stated publicly he wanted a player from the first round who could affect the team in 2012. There was no player more suited to do that than a pass rusher. That's why Shea McClellin is a Bear.

The Bears could have chosen offensive tackle Riley Reiff. He still isn't starting in Detroit.

They could have chosen linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who went to the Patriots. But he probably would have been playing about 30 percent of the snaps at most as a strong side linebacker until Urlacher moved on.

If the Bears had known more about Urlacher's knee situation in April, perhaps they would have taken a different approach.

But they didn't, so it's likely Mincey would have given the Bears even more depth and power on their defensive line.

They might have become the Giants of the Midwest.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter@danpompei

CHICAGO