Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ed Bouchette: Urlacher upholds Bears linebacker tradition

Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher directs the defense against the Seahawks in the NFC playoff football game in Jan. 14.

No teddy bear: Chicago's Urlacher upholds linebacker tradition

Size, speed and range combine to make him one of the NFL's best defensive players, if not the best

Thursday, February 01, 2007

By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- The moment that defined the Steelers' improbable march to their Super Bowl victory last season was so visually pleasing it appeared on countless loops of highlights of their championship season.

You could not watch TV for 10 minutes the week leading up to the Super Bowl without seeing Jerome Bettis plow through the snow at Heinz Field and run over a Chicago Bears linebacker on his way to a 5-yard touchdown in the third quarter of the Steelers' 21-9 victory.

That not only ended the Bears' eight-game winning streak, it revitalized the Steelers. It was their first victory of eight in a row that delivered an unexpected Vince Lombardi Trophy.

It also was no ordinary linebacker Bettis used as the stepping stone that day. He ran over Brian Urlacher, who would be named the NFL's defensive player of the year for that season, a six-time Pro Bowl player in his seven NFL seasons.

Urlacher can be excused if that play is not on his personal highlights reel of memories. Even the best sometimes get run over.

"It's one play," said Lance Briggs, one of Chicago's two outside linebackers. "You win some, you lose some. It's football. You can't knock everybody over. Jerome Bettis is not a second-rate back, he's a top back."

He also retired after getting his only Super Bowl ring. Urlacher won't retire after the Bears' game against the Indianapolis Colts. He's only 28 and, according to his coach, getting better.

"Brian was defensive player of the year last year,'' said Bears coach Lovie Smith. "I think he has played better this year ... I can talk about Urlacher for a long time. I think he is the best player in football."

He could be the best middle linebacker to play in Chicago. That might be considered blasphemy, because three Hall of Fame middle linebackers dominated Bears defenses between 1952 and 1992.

"Bill George started us out, and then we've got Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary," Urlacher said. "It's a great tradition.

"When you think of the Chicago Bears, No. 1 for me at least, I think of Walter Payton and then the great linebackers who have played there. Our fans are blue-collar, and they love defense and they love linebackers for some reason."

The Bears play a 4-3 cover-2 defense, the kind the Steelers may adopt before too long. Urlacher is perfect for it, a rangy, 6-foot-4 258-pounder who can stop the run and cover receivers deep. He drops deeper than any linebacker in ages. That's not surprising because he played free safety, linebacker and wide receiver at New Mexico, where he also returned kickoffs and punts, using techniques he says helps him today.

"Everyone knows I run down the middle in cover-2," Urlacher said, "so it helps me adjust to the ball a little bit so I can see where I need to be, and where the ball is going to end up. I think it has helped me just in judging the ball a little and knowing where it's going to be and where I need to be."

Urlacher was shown knocking passes away deep in the zone against Seattle in the Bears' first playoff victory. People claim he actually gained ground on Reggie Bush, passing his own defensive backs, as he chased the Saints' rookie on the way to his 88-yard touchdown run in the NFC championship.

Bush taunted Urlacher, pointing the ball at him as he ran the final 10 yards. Urlacher merely turned after the play and walked to the Chicago sideline, without a hint of reaction.

"When he makes a false step or a bad key, he makes up for it because he's so fast," said Briggs. "And he creates problems for teams because he's so tall. You have to get it over his head, and, if you lob it over his head, you give the secondary time to make a play.

"He's a physical guy, competitive, high motor. There's nobody like him in the league."

One of Urlacher's toughest jobs Sunday won't involve his speed or other physical skills. He must match wits with Peyton Manning. The Colts' quarterback is famous both for taking his time at the line of scrimmage in the no-huddle offense to call a play and faking the call as he runs up and down the line, shouting sometimes little nothings into the ears of his offensive linemen.

"We just have to get adjusted to it because it is so fast and it happens so quick," Urlacher said. "You kind of panic when you don't need to, and that's what we did early [in a 2004 loss to the Colts, 41-10]. If you don't panic and you just let your coaches make your calls for you, you should be OK. It's hard to do that because you are so nervous about them snapping the ball before you are ready."

Perhaps, it's Manning and the Colts who should be nervous whenever they look up and see Urlacher.

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at )

No comments: