Urlacher a force again
Urlacher a force again
Linebacker may be biggest plus for Bears defense after a season lost to injury
David Haugh In the Wake of the News
On the last play of the first half Monday night against the Packers, Brian Urlacher leaped high into the air to bat a desperation Aaron Rodgers pass, volleyball-style, into the hands of Lance Briggs.
The Urlacher-Briggs collaboration was nothing new or extraordinary. For 88 games together over eight seasons, Urlacher and Briggs have been Chicago's latest dynamic sports duo, a modern-day Bears equivalent of Jordan and Pippen or an older NFL version of Kane and Toews.
But this particular play, while less important than the fumble Urlacher would cause with 2:18 left that led to the Bears' game-winning field goal, represented more than just a garbage-time, pad-the-statistics interception. This was a play that figuratively and literally displayed the heights to which the Bears defense can soar with its leader once again spry and agile.
There was Urlacher, 258 pounds of sinewy strength, springing off fresh legs to spike the ball into the arms of his linebacker buddy. There was Briggs, the five-time Pro Bowl player in his prime, happily benefiting from a healthy Urlacher the way that relationship always has worked best. One without the other just doesn't pack the same punch.
I realize Urlacher and Briggs played together in 2007-08 and those defenses stunk. But even Urlacher agreed that, after a forced one-year sabbatical due to a wrist injury, something's new about him. Something's different ... yet familiar.
Much of the attention after the Packers game focused on Devin Hester's return, but Urlacher's means even more over the course of 16 games. So far Urlacher resembles the sideline-to-sideline force he was early in his career more than the plodder accused of being unable to get off blocks.
In critiquing the Bears' biggest offseason additions, we forgot one every bit as major as Julius Peppers. The most fun debate may be who adds more: Peppers or Urlacher?
The Bears' defense without Urlacher in '09 lacked cohesiveness and the ability to stop the run. The Bears with Urlacher blow fewer assignments, take more calculated risks and find ways to get off the field.
Urlacher doesn't have to be the Bears' best player of the post-1985 era or the guy who was the 2005 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He just has to be in the middle, answering questions and fixing mistakes, and let his presence bring out the best in Briggs and other teammates.
"I feel like I'm better than I was back (in '08),'' Urlacher said. "I'm heavier, a bit more powerful. I'm running to the football, my keys are a bit more clear now, just playing downhill.''
Not bad for a guy who many thought was over the hill.
LeBron James plans to keep a list of critics from last offseason for motivation. If Urlacher did the same thing he could just grab a Chicagoland phone book. From Lisle to Lake Forest, faith in 'Lach' lacked.
When Urlacher turned 32 last May and Gale Sayers publicly doubted the linebacker, it reflected widespread belief that the face of the franchise had begun to sag. The skepticism began in earnest two years ago when Urlacher staged a very public and unpopular campaign for an $18 million contract extension.
As someone who advocated the Bears pay Urlacher whatever he wanted given his past contributions and future worth, I know the local consensus — shared by some at Halas Hall — was that Urlacher was in decline and his burst had gone bust. Now the $22.35 million owed Urlacher over the final three seasons doesn't seem outrageous at all given the NFL marketplace and the value of a team leader still able to make plays.
Yes, Urlacher still misses some. A Rodgers touchdown pass whizzed by Urlacher's earhole before he had time to whip his head around. He missed more tackles than a superstar should. But Urlacher already has 33 stops in three games, and he has a sack, forced fumble, recovery and an NFL-high 5 1/2 stuffs — tackles for zero or negative yardage.
"I haven't had a year off since seventh grade, so I think (sitting out '09) did help my body kind of calm down and relax a little bit,'' Urlacher said.
Now in his 11th season, Urlacher uses his hands more to get off blocks and his head to get in the right gap. But the trait hardest to measure after a year off comes in the zeal Urlacher brings to the field. The scale tells Urlacher the added muscle makes him heavier but, just an observation, a much lighter approach off the field projects a guy who seems much less burdened.
It seems Urlacher came back with an attitude as healthy and refreshed as his body.
"As you watch him during the course of the game, it looks like he is having fun, and guys normally have fun when they're playing good ball,'' Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Brian Urlacher is playing great football.''
The Bears can afford to make a statement by sitting Tommie Harris. They can bench No. 1 cornerback Zack Bowman or leave safety Chris Harris on the sidelines for the most critical drive against the Lions. But the most indispensable part of a defense most responsible for a 3-0 start still wears No. 54.
The Bears should remain in contention as long as he stays on the field.
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