Bears Positional Analysis; LB's Aren't Getting Any Younger.......
Bears analysis: Clock ticking on 'vintage' LBs
By Brad Biggs, Tribune reporter 9:22 a.m. CST, January 12, 2012
Fourth in a 10-part series
Consistency continues to define what the Chicago Bears do at the linebacker position.
This wasn't the best season for middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs, but once again both were named to the Pro Bowl. It was the eighth all-star invite for Urlacher and the seventh consecutive for Briggs.
Briggs responded to questions about their age by describing themselves as "vintage." They can’t remain elite performers forever, and they’re closer to the end than they are the beginning, but these core members of the defense remain strong going into 2012.
Urlacher doesn’t run like he used to and he’s not as much of a threat as a pass rusher any more. He has 41½ career sacks but went without one in 2011 and has had zero for four of the last five seasons, including 2009 when he missed 15 games with the wrist injury. But his 135 tackles trailed Briggs, the team leader, by only 12. Urlacher had three interceptions to give him 21 for his career.
As the Bears' defense works, Nick Roach played about 50 percent of the time on the strong side, which comes out in the nickel package. He was consistent, especially in the second half of the season, and finished with 61 tackles, sixth on the team (with six tackles for loss).
Roll call: Lance Briggs (signed through 2013), Brian Urlacher (signed through 2012), Nick Roach (signed through 2012), Dom DeCicco (signed through 2013), Patrick Trahan (signed through 2013), Jabara Williams (signed through 2014), J.T. Thomas (signed through 2014), Brian Iwuh (released).
2011 review: It wasn’t long ago the Bears talked about being five and even six deep at the position when it came to linebackers. That wasn’t the case when training camp opened and the depth the Bears had was gone. The team flirted with the idea of bringing back Pisa Tinoisamoa after another knee surgery but chose not to and Roach did fine. Depth didn’t become an issue because the starters were not injured until Urlacher went down late in the season finale.
It’s hard to say there were any signature games by the linebackers, but Briggs had 15 tackles in three games -- at New Orleans, vs. Green Bay and at Denver. Urlacher also made 15 tackles at Denver against the Broncos’ run-first attack.
The run defense finished fifth in the league as the Bears allowed an average of 96.4 yards per game. It marks the fourth time in the Lovie Smith era the defense has held the opposition to less than 100 yards per game. A lot of the credit goes to the linebackers, who were finishing off the plays. That’s what kept the Bears in games this season, the ability to make opponents one-dimensional at times.
The reserves proved to be strong performers for special teams coordinator Dave Toub. DeCicco, an undrafted rookie free agent from Pitt, was second with 17 tackles. He is a converted safety and is learning the position. The hope is he can be a reliable backup in the middle and on the strong side. Iwuh had 14 tackles and was leading the team when he suffered a hamstring injury in the Nov. 27 game at Oakland. The Bears chose to waive him injured.
Free agency/draft priority: Many have wondered for a few years now when the Bears will start to think about life after Urlacher. There doesn’t appear to be a candidate to take over the position when he’s finally through playing. Urlacher will be heading into the final year of a contract that was extended back in 2008. He turns 34 in May and it would not be a surprise if the sides get together at some point during the year and work on a short-term deal. One would think the Bears plan to make Urlacher a Bear for life, but it takes two sides to make a deal. Briggs, on the other hand, likely will continue his quest for a re-worked contract with the yet-to-be-named general manager. He has two years remaining on his contract and made a mini-squabble during preseason when he announced he was ready for new paper. If Briggs doesn’t get a new deal, it’s possible he becomes scarce this offseason. He’s raised a ruckus in the past but that doesn’t mean he will do so again. So, the Bears have a solid starting unit moving forward. With a host of other needs, at what point can the franchise invest a draft pick with an eye toward the future? Drafting linebackers is something Angelo struggled to do after Briggs. He tried to fill the ranks with younger players many times and missed.
Looking ahead: Behind the starters is an interesting cast of athletic players who could fit the scheme. Williams is a player the Bears liked a good deal. Thomas spent the season on injured reserve with a back injury and he will be in the mix. The thing is, a new general manager doesn’t have any attachment to these players. They were selected because they fit Smith’s scheme and they will have to make a mark to stick. Otherwise, the Bears will be looking for new backups behind one of the league’s most familiar and successful starting trios.
Bottom line: The Bears have bigger issues on defense, specifically at cornerback and defensive end, to make this a top priority. The challenge will be for Urlacher and Briggs to perform at an all-star level once again.
Next: Wide receivers.