Commentary

Under the radar no more

Linebacker deserving of Urlacher's spotlight

Originally Published: September 27, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

[+] EnlargeLance Briggs
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson Lance Briggs may just now be in the spotlight, but he's been a great linebacker for years.

CHICAGO -- Lance Briggs will always be in Brian Urlacher's shadow, there's no way around that.

Briggs could lead the Bears to a Super Bowl, cure the H1N1 flu virus and come up with a realistic budget for the 2016 Olympics, and talking heads would marvel, "He learned that all from playing with Urlacher!"

That's what happens when you play alongside a Madison Avenue-approved superstar.

So when Briggs has a great game, like he did in the Bears' thrilling 25-19 win in Seattle on Sunday, the talking point will be: He needed to step up with Urlacher gone. As if Urlacher's absence was the motivation Briggs needed to be the star of the defense.

Most of us know that argument is just bar talk, and it's misleading, if not flat-out wrong.

For one thing, even if Urlacher was manning the middle of the field, the Bears would still need a major impact from Briggs, who has made the past four Pro Bowls, because quite frankly, the Bears just don't have that many playmakers, especially in the secondary.

Forget the Urlacher Kool-Aid, er, Vitamin Water -- Briggs has been the Bears' best linebacker for years, he just doesn't have Urlacher's Q-rating.

While Urlacher has Old Spice, Nike and Vitamin Water, Briggs has a billboard alongside the highway extolling the virtues of Venom Energy Drink. Let's just say Dr. Pepper's second-tier energy drink wasn't exactly what Rod Tidwell's wife was talking about as one of the "Big Three" in "Jerry Maguire."

The 28-year-old Briggs got Urlacher's captain status after the Bald One went down with his wrist injury, and Briggs got his earned respect when he re-signed with the Bears before the 2008 season -- a reported six-year, $36 million deal that was worth $21.6 million in salary the first three seasons and contained $13 million in bonuses. No matter how many expensive cars you crash on the side of the road, that kind of money guarantees you can pay the repair bills.

In the past few years, Briggs mimicked Urlacher's churlishness, between contract disputes and off-the-field issues creeping into Q&A sessions. But these days Briggs is much more pleasant to reporters, and maybe he's more content with being a public figure now. In training camp he joked that reporters were too focused on Jay Cutler.

"You guys know I'm still on the team, right?" Briggs said. "I mean, I'm going to have to do a dance for you guys or something."

Briggs has made his annual trips to Hawaii, and consistently racks up solo tackles as the weakside linebacker, but the Bears' defense he represents hasn't been fearsome at all in the past two years. They've been pretty good against the run, and quite bad against the pass. It's a defense that upholds one of the virtues of the Tampa 2 -- bend but don't break -- but they haven't been able to force fumbles (one of Lovie Smith's main points of focus in practice, supposedly), nor have they employed big-time playmakers. Last year, the Bears were tied for third in interceptions (22), but were last with only eight forced fumbles. (They recovered 10 fumbles, which means they got lucky a few times.)

Briggs has been a great linebacker, though not necessarily a turnover machine. He had one forced fumble last year, and for his career he has 10 forced fumbles, six sacks and nine interceptions. By comparison, an elite linebacker like James Harrison forced seven fumbles in each of the past two years and had 28.5 sacks going into this year. Explosion plays aren't Briggs' game, and gaudy stats aren't what the Bears' defense needed in the past. But now, with a crew of subs around him (Hunter Hillenmeyer went down against Seattle with a rib injury), Briggs is undoubtedly the most gifted defensive player on the field, and he needs to come up with some big plays to turn the tide of games.

[+] EnlargeLance Briggs
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonBriggs had seven solo tackles on Sunday, as well as two impact plays in the Bears' win over the Seahawks.

He did that Sunday.

"Our captain Lance Briggs, playing his guts out every day," Smith marveled in the postgame press conference.

Briggs had seven solo tackles and two impact plays -- a sack on third-and-9 in the second quarter that led to Cutler's touchdown pass to Greg Olsen, and a diving interception of Seneca Wallace on first down in the third quarter deep in Seattle territory that led to a Robbie Gould field goal. You won't see a better interception from the secondary all year.

"It's part of what we do," Briggs said. "Being aggressive is how we play football. It's high-risk, high-reward, sometimes."

The rest of the defense, frankly, was suspect. A win is a win, to be sure, and the Seahawks' final drive, which contained a lot of medium-range passes but nothing deep, proved that the Bears' Tampa 2 is still a formidable defense when you're trying to stifle the opposition with a lead. But the Bears' tackling was certainly shaky, as evidenced by Julius Jones' 39-yard touchdown catch-and-run in the first quarter, when he brushed off Charles "Peanut" Tillman's weak attempt to force a fumble en route to the end zone.

Seattle piled up 346 yards (unofficially), and Wallace, playing for the injured Matt Hasselbeck, threw for 261 yards, consistently stepping up under pressure from the Bears' front seven. But Wallace only averaged 5.9 yards per pass attempt (Cutler averaged 9.1), another sign the defense was doing its job, at the minimum.

"That's what good teams do when they don't play their best football," Smith said. "They find a way to win."

The Bears are 2-1 with Detroit coming to town and a bye on the horizon. No one's going to say the defense is carrying the team anymore, but with Briggs as the headliner, it's getting the job done.

"We have a good team," Briggs said. "We're going to end up winning a lot of close games."

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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