Wednesday, June 1, 2011

In Review: The Linebackers

I'm rounding the corner on these unit reviews, but there's still a few left. Today we get to the heart of the defense: the linebackers. Starting with a man who didn't actually play a single down this year:

#92 Hunter Hillenmeyer, OLB
I normally wouldn't put someone who didn't play in a review, but Hunter's Bears career is most likely over and I'd like to acknowledge the five years that he did play in a Bears uniform. Hunter took a lot of crap (especially from me) throughout his career with the Bears thanks to the fact that he was always the obvious weak link in the linebacking corps, and Lovie, like the rest of us, was constantly looking for his replacement and never seemed to find him. Hunter was slow, he was a liability in coverage, and he had very limited range. However, he also managed to outlast guys like Jamar Williams (who has never had the instincts or intelligence to cash in on his talent) and he managed to be a healthy, dependable guy who really did everything that can be asked of him. I thought he was a starter-quality MLB when Urlacher went down in '09. We're used to so much more than that at that position, however, so Hunter once more bore the brunt of our disappointment. All that said, farewell Hunter, I hope that concussion doesn't have any lingering effects.

#52 Brian Iwuh, OLB
Iwuh was a good pick up to fill Dave Toub's designated special teams roster spot. Brad Biggs may still be asshurt over the Bears letting Tim Shaw go, but Iwuh was a solid contributor on special teams with ten tackles, and, unlike Shaw, he actually had some value as a defensive player. Iwuh got the start when injuries to Briggs and Tinoisamoa forced him and Nick Roach into the lineup against the Redskins, and Iwuh had a sack and a forced fumble in the game. He finished the year with 15 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, and a sack. He wasn't tendered in the brief free agency period before the lockout, but I still expect the Bears to bring him back once he lowers his asking price.

#53 Nick Roach, OLB
Nick Roach could start at outside linebacker and the Bears would be fine. He did well in 2009 when he started 15 games, although his efforts were lost in the midst of a pretty miserable season. The only thing that keeps him behind Pisa on the depth chart is that Pisa has much greater awareness and is a better defender against the pass. Both Roach and Pisa are currently free agents, so it will be interesting to see if the Bears can bring back both (although drafting JT Thomas would seem to indicate that someone's gonna go) or if they'll go with Pisa's experience and slightly better performance, or Roach's youth and potential.

#59 Pisa Tinoisamoa, OLB
Here's an interesting stat: In games started by Urlacher, Briggs, and Pisa last year the Bears were 7-1, in games where either Pisa or Briggs missed time the Bears were 4-4. Certainly Pisa is nowhere near the only reason for that, nor is the linebacking corps alone the decisive factor in winning or losing, but it just stands to reason that, as Paul Allen of the Vikings radio broadcast said, when those three are healthy the Bears win a lot of games. Pisa's been injury plagued throughout much of his career, and has managed to start just 12 of a possible 28 games as a Bear. In his ten starts this year, however, he was a highly effective complement to Urlacher and Briggs, with 40 tackles, a pass breakup, a sack, and a forced fumble. As I said, Nick Roach is a fine player, but the Bears are at their best on defense when they have Pisa in the lineup and have three veteran players who've spent most of their career in Lovie's defense and could play it blindfolded. I won't blame Jerry Angelo if he decides to give Roach a shot and doesn't gamble on another contract for Pisa, but the best case scenario is definitely that Pisa comes back healthy and gives the Bears at least one more year. Either way, depth is definitely important as this is one of the older (and yet most important and effective) units on the team.

#55 Lance Briggs, OLB
In 2009 Lance was left alone on an island on a defense that was crumbling around him and he had a subpar year by his standards. This year he had help again and reverted back to his All-Pro form despite missing his first ever start to injury agains the Seahawks and having to leave the Redskins game early on after aggravating the injury. The Bears went 0-2 in those games, which was one of the "ifs" that critics seemed to forget when listing all of the "lucky" breaks that allowed the Bears to win the games they "didn't deserve to win" while ignoring how close most of their losses were. In just 14 full games Briggs had 89 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, and 7 pass breakups. He added 11 tackles, a pass breakup, and an interception in the postseason. You don't really need me to tell you that Lance Briggs is awesome, but man, he's really awesome.

#54 Brian Urlacher, MLB
I don't know how much longer Urlacher can keep this up. I'm willing to buy that the year off because of the wrist injury saved him some wear and tear, but I'm still shocked by the complete resurgence he had this year and I'm still not sure how much longer the Bears can bank on that kind of performance. I think Ray Lewis' late career revival is certainly a reason for optimism, since the Ravens rebuilt their defensive line in order to free Ray up to make plays and hide his declining ability to shed blockers, something the Bears hopefully did by drafting Stephen Paea.

All that said, I'm just going to keep believing in Urlacher until I've got a reason not to. He missed the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2004 thanks to a series of injuries and was named "most overrated player" by the Sporting News. He went out and won Defensive Player of the Year. In 2007 he was snubbed again for the Pro Bowl after his lackluster first half and had a monster of a second half and finished with his best sack and interception totals in years. In 2008 he seemed to lack his old range and explosiveness and we feared he was done. The wrist injury in 2009 cost him a chance to redeem himself, but this year he had a hell of a lot of fun playing behind a defensive line that once again scared people and the upgrade at safety behind him (with Chris Harris returning and Danieal Manning having a breakout year) allowed him to move up and make more plays underneath. He finished with 125 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, an interception, and 10 pass breakups. He had a monster game against the Packers in the NFC Championship, although the "what might have been" of watching him get tackled by Aaron Rodgers on that interception return will stick with me for years. Other than that, however, it's hard to say that Brian Urlacher was anything other than amazing this year. That shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. I promise I won't be shocked if he does it again next year.