For some reason there’s a lot of talk going on in various Chicago Bear circles about trading Brian Urlacher, or complaining that he’s not a great player anymore or even a good player. So the talk gave me the notion to put finger tip to keyboard and defender Brian Urlacher’s play thus far in the pre-season. I admit is is hard to due given that Urlacher has looked progressively worse as the pre-season has wore on, but there’s a reason for everything.
I’ll start with the obvious reasons as to why Brian Urlacher is not the same player he once was. Brian Urlacher is 31-years-old now and has spent nine seasons being at the forefront of major collisions in the NFL. He’s also been the primary target time and again of just about every offensive coordinator in the league. Teams divise game plans to stop or slow this future hall of fame middle linebacker.
His speed which makes up most of his game and production as an NFL linebacker is not at the level it once was. However to be clear his speed is better than it was the last two seasons and that much has been evident in the plays Urlacher has been in on and the plays he has missed on in the case of Brandon Jacobs. He will never be the speedy play maker he once was, his age for a linebacker has taken it’s toll on that burst and speed and closing ability that we were so often shocked to see.
At 6-foot-4 258-pounds there really isn’t nor has there been in the last decade a player as fast or agile or quick as Brian Urlacher. He has made plays that most linebackers in this league simply cannot make. He can still make plays that a lot of linebackers in this league cannot and he will this season. Mark my words Brian Urlacher will play better and produce better than he has the last two seasons.
Will this production and play be at the level it was at his peak in 2005 and 2006? Probably not most assuredly he won’t be that player ever again. Given the injuries and where he is at this point in his career he won’t be the player we all remember and loved as part of the trifecta of great middle linebackers in the city of big shoulders.
With some of this said we need to clear up some of the myths surrounding Brian Urlacher and his style of play, much of it is frustrating and isn’t acceptable for a player of Urlacher’s size. This much is certain though even without these aspects Urlacher is still one of the most dominate players of his era.
Brian Urlacher has never been a down hill, attack the blocker, get off the block play maker type of a linebacker. Even with his size and strength this has never been his game. A lot of people appreciate Ray Lewis’ game for his ability to play down hill and get off blocks and his ability to seemingly deliver big hits on a consistent basis. This style of play is also what made Dick Butkus famous when he was in the league. Urlacher like Butkus is a player that has redefined the middle linebacker position. Both players were/are bigger and faster than most of the linebackers of their era. However the difference between Butkus and Urlacher is Butkus sought out physical contact and was purely a head hunter.
Dick Butkus was the most violent and most feared player in the history of the NFL. There likely will never be another player that plays with the same level of pure destruction that Butkus did. On the flip side of this though it also likely prolonged his NFL career in a way that Butkus’ play shortened his career. Dick Butkus retired with severe knee problems after only nine seasons in the NFL. Right now if Urlacher had the same length of career as the legendary blood and guts demon, this would be year one without Urlacher.
This is where Urlacher’s game receives the most criticism and deservedly so. Urlacher has always used his speed to make plays and he makes plays side line to side line better than any player of this era. He’s never been a gap filling linebacker that attacks down hill and lives for collisions. He most certainly would like to avoid collisions at all costs. Even with his size Urlacher has never full utilized it to his own advantage.
What makes this stand out even more is the smaller stature of his teammate Lance Briggs who attacks and sheds blockers better than Urlacher has. Briggs’ game is more of the attack the gap and get off the blocker well to make a tackle that most fans desire to see from Urlacher. Briggs’ ability and more down hill collision style of play has magnified Urlacher’s short comings in this area. This in turn has led to a lot of the misunderstanding about Urlacher’s style of play and what has made him successful in his NFL career.
Urlacher’s closing burst is what makes him one of the best defenders of his era. Not a lot of players were able to get the corner on him, he usually out ran most oncoming blockers to the gap or hole he was attacking. Those days are mostly gone though and they have been replaced by a slightly slower and smarter player.
While Urlacher is not as fast as he once was nor as violent as Dick Butkus, what he is is still a very good linebacker. There has been as much evidence in this throughout camp and in the pre-season. Yes he looked really bad against the Giants the way Brandon Jacobs ran him over or blasted past him on three or more plays. However there is not a linebacker in the NFL that can square up high on Brandon Jacobs one on one and make that tackle. There are not a lot of defensive tackles that can square up and take on the equally imposing 6-foot-4 260-pound-plus Jacobs in the open field.
I do believe though that Brian Urlacher will still be a part of this defense for a few more years and that if he can still perform at a level that is higher than most of the players in the league, he should be appreciated for that. While there will be chances to criticize him for his game and talk about Jay Cutler now being the face of the franchise, the facts remain the same, Urlacher is still a player. He still can play at a high enough level that will make this team better with him, and worse off without him.
Now fully healthy Urlacher will return to a level of play that more closely resembles the player he once was. Will he ever again be the NFL defensive player of the year? Likely not, but he will be a player that makes a difference and does everything he can to make this team better. He will also do everything he can fo fulfill the one remaining empty spot he has on his hall of fame resume, win a Super Bowl title.
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