Tuesday, May 8, 2012

2011 Bears Position Reviews: The Linebackers

Well, we reach the point now where we review the unit that has been (with the exception of Urlacher’s injured year in 2009) the strength of the team since 2001: the linebackers. Whether the group was Urlacher, Warrick Holdman, and Rosie Colvin or Urlacher, Briggs, and INSERTSAMPUNCHINGBAGHERE, the Bears have had, in my opinion, the best linebacking trio in the NFL over that time period. This year was no exception.

#54 Brian Urlacher: 16 games started, 102 tackles, 0 sacks, 7 passes defensed, 3 INTs, 0 FF, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 fumble return for TD
Don’t let the mild dip in tackles and the absence of sacks scare you. Both of those were more indicative of improved pressure from the defensive line rather than anything else. Pro Football Focus still had Urlacher ranked as one of their best linebackers and you only needed to use your eyes to see that Urlacher continued the late-career renaissance he began last year. He was once again a presence in pass coverage, daring teams to throw over the middle. They usually didn’t, and why would they when they could just pick on Major Wright? Early on he took some heat as people suggested that maybe he and Briggs were slowing down against the run, but after the team replaced Anthony Adams and Major Wright with Toeiana/Paea and Conte the team gave up just 78.5 rushing yards per game. They finished 5th against the run but were far and away the best in the league for the last 11 games, and that, as usual, had a lot to do with the two lynchpins in their linebacking unit.

We’re spoiled, folks. That’s really all there is to it. Maybe the older generation can tell us what it’s like losing someone like Mike Singletary and dabbling around with guys like Bryan Cox, but I’m terrified of the future without Urlacher. The thing is, I have no idea when that’s coming. Common sense would say within the next two years, but provided his knee injury heals (and it should, nothing was actually torn) I don’t see any reason why Urlacher should drop off from the elite level he’s played the last two seasons very quickly. A slow decline is certainly likely, but that leaves him in a Ray Lewis-like situation where Urlacher after five years of slow decline would still be one of the better linebackers in the league.

#55 Lance Briggs: 16 games started, 105 tackles, 0 sacks, 4 passes defensed, 1 INT, 2 FF.
You can pretty much repeat everything I said about Brian Urlacher for Lance Briggs. He pissed us all off by moaning about his contract (again) before the season but he went out and played every single defensive snap and had another excellent season. Both he and Urlacher saw a dip in their pass rushing numbers thanks to the emergence of guys like Henry Melton, but also because they were forced to drop deep more than Lovie would have liked thanks to the injuries at safety. Next year we’ll hopefully see them mixing it up more near the line of scrimmage. I’m glad Phil Emery finally got an extension done, because anything that makes sure Urlacher and Briggs are lining up beside each other for as long as possible is a good thing.

I do think it’s smart that the Bears have a potential succession plan in place for both of them, however, and most people don’t realize it. Geno Hayes was very successful in two years replacing Derrick Brooks in Tampa before the switch away from the Cover 2 to more of a base 4-3 kind of threw him off. He’s still just 24 and capable of playing either OLB position. Nick Roach was actually much better than most people realized playing MLB at times in 2009, so you could potentially see a situation where Hayes, Roach, and Briggs play the three spots after Urlacher retires, or Roach, Urlacher, and Hayes play if Briggs should somehow go first. The important thing is that, in the short term. The Bears finally addressed the potential of an Urlacher/Briggs injury. Let’s just hope they don’t have to use it.

#53 Nick Roach: 16 games started, 37 tackles, 4 passes defensed.
The SAM position in the Tampa Two defense is one of the most thankless positions in all of football. Their main assignment is simply to hurl themselves at fullbacks and tight ends on ISO plays and then watch as Urlacher and Briggs celebrate another awesome tackle. It’s the kind of thing that leads a quality player like Hunter Hillenmeyer to take a bunch of shit from fans (like a younger, dumber version of me) over why their numbers look so paltry compared to the superstars next to them. It’s also why Hunter had to retire after six years due to a serious of concussions thanks to his role as a battering ram.

 Roach, for example, is a very solid player. Pro Football Focus actually has him rated pretty high for his career, even during that brief stretch in 2009 when he had to play some middle linebacker. Despite this, he’s constantly ignored by fans and even the coaching staff, since they’ve brought in guys like Pisa and Hayes to compete with him every step of the way. I’m not complaining about that, because depth is always a good thing, I just feel bad for a guy who is a good player and will probably never get much credit for it.


That’s it for now. I’m not going to break down the reserves who didn’t start last year, since all of them will probably be gone except for Dom DeCicco, since the staff seems to like him as a special teamer and the only other true middle linebacker on the roster. It’ll be interesting to see if the team gets anything from last year’s 6th rounder JT Thomas, who spent the season on Jerry Angelo’s beloved rookie injured reserve redshirt program. Obviously Hayes will make the team, so my early guess is Urlacher/Briggs/Roach/Hayes/DeCicco/Thomas.