Urlacher in midst of excellent season
Urlacher in midst of excellent season
http://www.chicagotribune.com/media/...2/58319742.jpg Brian Urlacher and teammates at the start of the fourth quarter against the Patriots at Soldier Field. (Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune / December 12, 2010)
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Numbers that matter don't lie, and they indicate he's defying age as well as NFL wear and tear
Dan Pompei On the NFL 8:18 p.m. CST, December 16, 2010
Two numbers suggest Brian Urlacher has seen better days.
The first is 32 — his age. The second is 11 — his years in the NFL.
But there are many other numbers that suggest the Bears middle linebacker is having a remarkable season and remains one of the league's elite — even if he physically is no longer in his prime.
Let's look at five statistical barometers.
Tackles: Urlacher is on a pace to have 145 tackles, according to the Bears' statistics. He has had more tackles than that six times in his career, including in 2002 when he had a career high 214. But that was in a different defensive system with different coaches tallying the numbers.
"My tackle numbers aren't there, but a lot of guys on our defense have a lot of tackles too," Urlacher said. "My tackles aren't downfield, I can tell you that much. They all are near the line of scrimmage, which is good."
Urlacher has 14 percent of his team's tackles this year. In 2002, he had a career-best 17 percent. Since the Bears have been playing in the Cover-2 system, however, this is Urlacher's second best percentage after 2006, when he made 15 percent.
Urlacher has been one of the most productive tacklers at middle linebacker in the NFL this year. The only other true middle linebacker with more tackles is the Titans' Stephen Tulloch, who has 18 more. Two inside linebackers in 3-4 defenses also lead him.
Tackles for a loss: Urlacher is on pace to have 14 tackles for a loss. No middle or inside linebacker in the NFL has as many. The most he ever had was 19 in Greg Blache's defense in 2002, but in Lovie Smith's defense his high is 12.
"That's a tribute to our defense, how downhill we are, being aggressive," Urlacher said. "We haven't blitzed a lot so most of those come from Cover 1, sometimes Cover 2. It's reading my keys, hitting your gap and running through it."
Pass breakups: Urlacher already has broken up three more passes than his career best and he's tied for third in the NFL among inside linebackers with 11 behind London Fletcher of the Redskins and Derrick Johnson of the Chiefs, who each have 12.
"That tells me I should have more picks," Urlacher said. "I dropped one against the Patriots I should have had. It would have been a tough catch, but I should have caught it. A lot has to do with the ball coming out fast. Our D-line getting to the quarterback helps with that."
Takeaways: No inside linebacker has more combined interceptions and fumble recoveries than Urlacher's four (one interception, three fumble recoveries). Three others have as many. His career best is seven in 2007. He also has two forced fumbles, which ties his career best.
Sacks: Urlacher isn't a pass rusher, so he really shouldn't be judged on sacks. But sacks are part of the big picture. He is on pace to have five, three fewer than his career high as a rookie in 2000.
Only two inside linebackers, Kevin Burnett of the Cowboys and Patrick Willis of the 49ers, have more. Both play behind three-man fronts.
Three NFL personnel men agreed Urlacher has played better than expected. One said he didn't think Urlacher was as explosive as he once was, but that he still runs very well. Another thought Urlacher doesn't run quite as fast as he once did.
"My speed is probably not where it used to be," Urlacher said. "I take better angles now. The older you get, the smarter you have to be. I don't know if I've lost a lot of speed. Maybe a little, but not too much. I feel I'm running well."
Evidently, Urlacher is compensating for whatever age is taking from him.
"He is better than I've ever seen him in terms of using his hands to get off blocks," one of the personnel men said.
Urlacher agrees he has improved at using his hands — no small feat considering he is coming off a broken wrist.
"I'm more conscious about getting off blocks and not getting stuck on a guy," Urlacher said.
Comparing Urlacher to what he once was really has no bearing on the present. Comparing him to his competition is all that matters.
The numbers, and our eyes, tell us he is playing middle linebacker as well as anyone — if not better.