Bears DT Harris will miss first start in 45 games

Chicago defensive tackle Tommie Harris will miss the first game of his three-year NFL career on Monday night when the Bears play at St. Louis.

And the situation could get a lot worse, with the possibility now that Harris might be sidelined for the balance of the season.

Harris suffered a sprained left knee in last Sunday's victory against Minnesota and, while the injury is not as severe as originally feared, it will snap his streak of 44 consecutive appearances. Compounding the knee injury is a strained left hamstring, an injury that wasn't originally noted until the Bears issued their injury report on Wednesday afternoon.

It is the hamstring problem, described by coach Lovie Smith on Thursday as the "more severe" of the injuries, that is most troublesome to Chicago officials. Harris is scheduled to go to Dallas in the next few days to have the hamstring examined by a specialist there.

"When I talk about hamstrings ... he has a significant pull," Smith said. "With that in mind, it could be the regular season or it could be farther than that. But again, you're asking me to play doctor, [and] right now I do not choose to do that."

It is expected that six-year veteran Alfonso Boone will replace Harris at the "under" tackle position in the starting lineup.

Neither the team nor Harris has elaborated about the knee injury, but the suspicion is that the standout tackle suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament. Such injuries do not require surgery but typically take two to four weeks to heal.

Smith announced earlier this week that Harris' knee injury is not season-ending. But with the best record in the NFC, and likely to have homefield advantage through the playoffs, Chicago might have erred on the side of caution, and kept Harris out of the lineup until the postseason. The accompanying hamstring injury complicates the issue and might make the issue of resting Harris a moot one.

Harris was injured early in the third quarter of Sunday's victory over Minnesota when he tackled Vikings tailback Chester Taylor. He was taken from the field on a cart and was on crutches after the game. Several Vikings players said Harris told them he feared he had torn the anterior cruciate ligament, an injury that would have sidelined him for the balance of the season.

An MRI exam on Monday, however, revealed the more benign sprained knee ligament.

The team's first-round choice in the 2004 draft, Harris has started in all but one of his 44 appearances. The former Oklahoma star has 103 tackles, 11½ sacks, three passes defensed, three forced fumbles and three recoveries. In 12 games this season, Harris has 28 tackles, five sacks and one pass defensed.

"No one else in the league has a player like Tommie Harris," Smith said of his star tackle, who appears in line for a long-term contract extension. "Now I see us being like everyone else. Everyone else has played without a dominant player like that. Does it change the dynamics of our team, the defensive line? Yes, for sure."

A dominating interior force early in the season, Harris posted five sacks in his first four outings but has gone eight games without a sack.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.