Who are these guys, where did they come from, and what were they doing up till now?

The Bears returned suddenly and unexpectedly to peak form this fall. Their 24-0 shutout of the Bengals Sunday in Cincinnati gave them a 4-1 start for the first time in ten years, going back to the Mike Ditka era. Everyone had expected moderate improvement by the Bears this season, but no one expected this. A couple of months ago, WSCR AM morning host Terry Boers was ridiculed for suggesting that the Bears could go 9-7, and I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone more optimistic than that–anyone, that is, who doesn’t collect a paycheck from the team. Yet after giving the defending National Football League champion Baltimore Ravens all they could handle in an opening loss, the Bears have won each game.

The most obvious catalyst has been quarterback Jim Miller. Miller’s slow rehabilitation from last year’s torn Achilles tendon delayed his progress during training camp, but he replaced the more cautious Shane Matthews when Matthews was injured in the second game and led the Bears to a 17-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field. Then the Bears walloped the Atlanta Falcons, a team on the decline, and dominated the Arizona Cardinals by the deceptively close score of 20-13 (the Cards scored late to make it respectable). This was a victory that must have greatly satisfied head coach Dick Jauron, who got the Bears job a few years ago only after the Cards’ more discerning Dave McGinnis turned it down.

But these wins prepared no one for the 24-0 triumph over the Bengals, a team that entered the game 3-2 and presented a typically huge Cincinnati offensive line and a running game, led by Corey Dillon, that demanded respect. The Bears snuffed Dillon and kept Cincinnati quarterback Jon Kitna on the run all afternoon. Almost a third of the way through the season, the Bears hold a scoring edge over their opponents of 98-43. That’s a statistic recalling the Bears of the mid-80s.

These Bears, make no mistake, are nothing like those Bears. But there is something about them; they are developing a unique personality. As usual, it’s a personality epitomized by their leader. The mid-80s Bears would have denied even having a leader–such a proud and ornery bunch they were–but their intensity was projected from the eyes of middle linebacker Mike Singletary. Likewise, the Bears of 15 years before that were embodied by middle linebacker Dick Butkus, whose mean-spirited vindictiveness reflected a stern, unforgiving defense that was the only source of pride those offensively inept teams could claim.

Again, the new Bears find their leadership at middle linebacker, but Brian Urlacher is entirely different in style from either Singletary or Butkus. Plainly put, Urlacher is a specimen who runs like a deer and sticks like a longhorn bull, which perfectly suits the faster-paced NFL game played today. He flies all over the field, swatting down balls and dragging down ballcarriers, and the rest of the defense has taken on his swarming style of play. Outside linebackers Rosevelt Colvin, who originally beat out the rookie Urlacher a year ago before Urlacher was shifted to the middle, and Warrick Holdman, who’s stepped forward to seize the team lead in tackles from Urlacher this season, are equally mobile, roaming from sideline to sideline with impunity. Under defensive coordinator Greg Blache they’re playing the same defensive scheme they had a year ago (aside from the occasional switch into Buddy Ryan’s old 46 defense), which finds them stacked deep behind the defensive line in the same basic alignment that Dave Wannstedt used with his linebackers. But the Bears now have a serviceable defensive line. New tackles Ted Washington and Keith “Tractor” Traylor are a great improvement on Mike Wells and Jim Flanigan (true Bears in personality, but not in playing ability); they’ve clogged up the run and allowed Urlacher, Colvin, and Holdman to prowl around behind them like wolves. In addition, they’ve made defensive ends Phillip Daniels and Bryan Robinson into the pass-rushing threats they were supposed to be a year ago. Bill Walsh once said something I never tire of repeating: a pass rush late in the game is the key to NFL football. This proved as true as ever when the Bears got a late sack in the Arizona game to preserve that victory.

The same run-and-stick attitude has spread even to the defensive backs, with corner R.W. McQuarters (a first-round washout in San Francisco who now seems bent on rubbing the 49ers’ noses in their decision to let him go) joining the ever embattled Walt Harris, and with safeties Mike Brown and Tony Parrish arousing memories of Gary Fencik, Todd Bell, Dave Duerson, Shaun Gayle, and yes, even Doug Plank.

Bears fans take pride in defense first and foremost, and this defense has come out of nowhere to give them something to be proud of. What I like about it is the way that it’s not just individual player development that’s made the difference. The Bears of the mid-80s were built by high draft picks, and one could see the defense–Singletary and Bell and Dan Hampton and Richard Dent and Steve McMichael and Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson–becoming a more potent force as each new stud was added to the structure. This defense has come together to make itself better as a group. The front line gives the linebackers the opportunity to roam; this allows Blache to call more blitzes; and these minimize the chance that Harris or McQuarters will get burned while also encouraging the safeties to come up and be more aggressive. Put it all together and the porous group of a year ago is a force to be reckoned with.

Most fans agreed that the key play in Sunday’s win over the Bengals was McQuarters’s interception near the Bears’ goal line in the second quarter, but I’d pick the play before that. The Bengals had driven to the Bears’ six yard line. Then Kitna called a rollout, which was meant to give his receivers time to dance back and forth until one got open. It was a great call, but it didn’t anticipate the way Urlacher would break into the open field and chase him down. Hurried, Kitna lost his footing as he was trying to plant himself to throw, and Urlacher fell on him for the sack. On the next play a bad snap and a Bears blitz combined to cause Kitna to hurry another throw, and McQuarters picked off the ball and returned it to midfield. In the Bears’ two previous victories, the game-sealing plays had been fumbles returned for long scores by McQuarters and Urlacher. This time the offense finished the job: one play later, rookie running back Anthony Thomas ran up the middle, cut back against the grain behind the right slant blocking of the offensive line, and ran 46 yards to set up the touchdown that put the Bears up 10-0.

The Bears’ defense had carried them through their earlier victories, never more so than the one over Arizona, when the offense played not to lose while the defense earned the win. Sunday, however, the offense held its own. Thomas, this spring’s second-round draft pick out of Michigan, claimed the position of top Bears back by gaining 188 yards, a team rookie record. Thomas had been playing behind James Allen, a smaller, fleeter, but less versatile back who attacks the line, hits the hole where it’s supposed to be, and either finds an opening or not–all or nothing. Thomas has proved himself better at feeling for the hole wherever it actually is. (With his long, low strides he resembles Franco Harris, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers.) Offensive coordinator John Shoop sensed immediately how to use Thomas. After running the ball 46 yards to the one yard line, Thomas bounced up as if determined to claim the touchdown on the next play. So Shoop had Miller fake a handoff to Thomas and toss the ball to the open tight end Fred Baxter, a newly acquired afterthought who caught his first pass as a Bear for the touchdown. Thomas would get his later, showing a burst of speed as he went around end for 23 yards and the final 24-0 score. Earlier, Miller hit Marty Booker with a short pass at the eight and Booker knifed his way in for the touchdown that put the Bears up 17-0, thus atoning for an earlier fumble near the goal line. And David Terrell, the Bears’ top draft choice last spring, was nursed into the mix with several short passes, including one for a first down early in the second half. On the very next play, Shoop sent him long on a post pattern, and Miller found him at the Cincinnati 16 yard line for a 29-yard completion that set up Booker’s score.

There were a couple of other key plays as well–plays that might have tipped things the other way but didn’t. Late in the first half, Marcus Robinson, the Bears’ designated big-play receiver, caught a ball, ran it up the sideline, and stayed down after he was tackled. Last year’s Bears had gone in the tank when they lost Robinson as a deep threat. “Bears season rests in balance,” I wrote in my notebook, recording the time of 5:16 to play in the half. Yet Terrell took over for Robinson–who’s out for the year with torn ligaments in his left knee–and the offense went on functioning without him. In a second critical play, the Bears had points taken off the board at the end of the first half when offensive tackle Blake Brockermeyer got hit with a ridiculous penalty for celebrating Paul Edinger’s field goal that seemingly had made the score 13-0 at intermission. Lesser, more emotionally fragile Bears teams–read, any coached by Wannstedt–would have nursed a grudge and let it show in the second half. With the defense leading the way, these Bears never let on they were bothered.

Where this newfound resolve comes from, I don’t know. For the most part, the Bears are the same bunch coached by the same staff as last year. It was widely thought that with the arrival of new general manager Jerry Angelo, this would be the last season for Jauron and his coaches. But the acquisition of veterans like Traylor and Washington and talented skill-position draftees like Terrell and Thomas seems to have filled the Bears’ holes and turned them into a true contender. It’s a stature that will be tested this weekend, when the resurgent ‘Niners come to Soldier Field. They’ll be facing a Chicago team in first place and a stadium of fans who might be accused of bandwagon jumping if they hadn’t suffered through a decade of incompetence.