A Deadly Linebacker Duo-a breakdown bears LB
A Deadly Linebacker Duo
By Jeremy Stoltz
Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher have been to multiple Pro Bowls apiece. Yet what exactly do they do on the field that makes them so valuable? New metrics can help us find the answer.
For years now, the Chicago Bears’ defense has hinged on the play of linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Urlacher – seven-time Pro Bowl selection, five-time All Pro selection and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year – and Briggs – six-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time All Pro selection – have earned their accolades.
In Lovie Smith’s 4-3 defense, the middle linebacker has many tasks. Against the run, he needs to be able to anchor at the point of attack as well as chase down ball carriers from sideline to sideline. Urlacher’s blend of size and speed allows him to accomplish both, although he’s never been outstanding taking bigger blockers head on.
Yet against the pass is where he really shines. In a base Cover-2 formation, the field is split into two halves for the safeties to each cover. This leaves a gap down the middle. In order to keep opposing offenses from eating up yardage down the seams, the middle linebacker must be able to drop quickly back, up to 15-20 yards, and cover that zone. Urlacher can not only wheel back to the middle zone quicker than most linebackers, but he also has elite height and awareness, and quick hands, making it nearly impossible for quarterbacks to drop in passes over his head
Without his work covering tight ends down the hash marks and receivers coming over the middle, the Bears’ Cover 2 could not be successful.
Briggs’ role in the defense is equally important. His job against the pass is to cover the shallow zone 5-10 yards down the field. When an opposing player catches a pass in front of him, he’s charged with coming up and making the tackle. The defense allows the short pass and is dependant upon defenders not giving up yards after the catch.
This is where Briggs excels. In all my years watching him play, I think I’ve seen him miss three total tackles. He eats up any ball carrier that comes near him and hits like a brick wall. He’s arguably the most efficient tackler in the game.
This also has great significance against the run. Briggs mans the weak side. In the Bears’ 4-3, the strong side players are tasked with eating up blockers and filtering runners to the weak side. When everyone does his job, the running back is directed right to Briggs, who almost always makes the play.
This is why quality performances from Briggs and Urlacher are so crucial, as so much of defense’s success is directly attached to how well these two execute. Yet not only do they execute but they also perform with impact.
Football Outsiders has developed a metric called a “Defeat.” A Defeat is defined as any play – tackle, assist, pass defended, interception or forced fumble – that does one of three things:
1) causes a turnover
2) causes a loss of yardage
3) stops a conversion on third or fourth down
Surprisingly, the player with the most Defeats in 2010 was Jacksonville’s Daryl Smith with 35. He was followed by the Giants’ Justin Tuck (33), Miami’s Cameron Wake (32) and Pittsburgh’s James Harrison (31).
Briggs was 13th on the list with 28 Defeats and Urlacher was 15th with 27. That’s a total of 55 plays between the two of them that strongly affected the outcome of games played in 2010. In 16 regular season games, the two averaged nearly 3.5 Defeats per game. That is 3.5 plays that result in a turnover, tackle for loss or third-down stop. These are the types of plays that can swing momentum, take points off the board or bury an opponent late in the game.
Only a few other NFL teams can boast a duo that had more impact than Briggs and Urlacher in 2010. These stats don’t tell the whole story of each game and only put value in certain accomplishments, but they give us a better idea of just how much impact these two players have week in and week out. And why both have had decorated careers that could land each in the Hall of Fame.