Bear facts: Urlacher measures up to Chicago greats
Six-time All-Pro Brian Urlacher has more than lived up to the grand tradition of Bears middle linebackers, Greg Garber writes.
MIAMI -- Since he arrived in Chicago seven seasons ago, Brian Urlacher has been assaulted by the tradition of the Bears' middle linebackers like a Dick Butkus forearm to the throat.
"Since day one when I got there -- that's all I've heard about," Urlacher said. "It's a huge honor to be able to play the same position as Bill George, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary. At the same time, people compare me to them all the time, and it's not fair because they are in the Hall of Fame.
"Maybe when I'm done, I'll be there. Who knows?"
There are times when the Bears' defense calls for their "Mike" linebacker to turn his back on the quarterback and run with a wide receiver. It happens so often that it is no longer astonishing. And yet, when you watch the slow-motion replays of Urlacher operating in Lovie Smith's Tony Dungy-influenced Tampa Cover 2 defense, it reveals just how versatile he is.
When the ethereal Reggie Bush walked out of the backfield and lined up as a wide receiver in the NFC Championship Game, it was Urlacher who covered him stride for stride. Saints quarterback Drew Brees didn't even bother trying to throw Bush the ball.
"The size of him -- and he can run like a deer," Butkus marveled in an exclusive interview with ESPN. "You put him one-on-one with Reggie Bush, that is a nice luxury for the Bears coaches to have. I think that's the big deal that he is bringing across."
But here's the scary thing: While Butkus, at 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, was the largest of the Bears' celebrated middle linebackers, understand that Urlacher is even bigger, at 6-4, 258 pounds. Butkus has taken some heat in the past for wishing out loud that Urlacher would hit harder.
"I got in a little trouble," Butkus said. "But they didn't follow that up and give the reason I said that. I just thought when he has the chance or the opportunity avails itself to really hit people, because what that does is make the ball carrier think about getting hit and start protecting himself. Somewhere along the line, you hope he forgets about holding the ball."
"I wish I could be as physical as he was, but I would get in trouble and get fined every week," Urlacher told ESPN's Rachel Nichols last week. "He choked people, he clotheslines people, face-masked them. He was mean. I wish I could do that, but it wouldn't fit in today's game. Plus, I couldn't do it because guys are too big."
Back in Butkus' day (1965-73), linemen were the same size as he was. Today, Urlacher sometimes finds himself 100 pounds lighter than opposing blockers, which makes his numbers even more remarkable. Urlacher recorded 185 tackles in the regular season, the second-highest total of his career. He didn't have any sacks -- that's not his role -- but led the Bears with 12 tackles for a loss and added eight passes defensed and three interceptions. He'll be heading to his sixth Pro Bowl in seven seasons.
Truth be told, Urlacher doesn't enjoy playing in the scheme, which doesn't encourage him to attack the line of scrimmage but, rather, forces him to patrol the middle of the field.
"Personally, I don't like Cover 2," Urlacher said. "I have to run down the middle every time. I am basically out of the play unless they throw it down the middle of the field. Even if they run it, I am behind."
The advantage for the Bears is that, even if the play is away from the space he is defending, Urlacher's speed allows him to make plays on the ball. He is, essentially, a free safety who just happens to be the size of a defensive end.
In high school and at New Mexico, Urlacher was a free safety and he was all over the field. When the Bears drafted him in the first round of the 2000 NFL Draft, they tried to make him an outside linebacker.
"I was a horrible outside linebacker," Urlacher said. "In high school, I just ran up and hit people. It was fun. Now, you put me on the tight end and I have to use my hands, use some technique. I need space to play and space to run around and make plays."
The Bears figured it out by his third game -- he had 12 tackles and a sack against the Giants -- and Urlacher has been stuck in the middle ever since. It makes sense to position him where he can make an impact on every play. His speed, he admits, isn't what it used to be, but with experience and film study he can still cover the young thoroughbreds offenses throw at him.
"It's hard to throw the ball over me," Urlacher said. "The ball has to be elevated, which gives our safeties a chance to break on the ball.
"We are new-age linebackers. Back in the day, the middle linebacker was a run-stopper. Now we rush the passer, pass defend and still help with the run. There is so much more we do with our game now. Our defense is a lot more intricate, and it allows me to do more than maybe it allowed them to do because it's just the way it's set up."
Smith, asked about Urlacher's place in the Bears' linebacker continuum earlier this week, launched a long and thoughtful answer.
"Chicago is a defensive town," he said. "It's blue-collar, and for some reason Dick Butkus played there, Mike Singletary played there and it's a great job by our scouting department to get Brian Urlacher. He has it all: He's one of the best guys you'll ever meet, [and] you can't find more talent than him. Six percent body fat -- you just go through it all. He's a coach on the field. He is a perfect teammate.
"When do you want me to stop?"
Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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