20 Sep 2005
by Michael David Smith
Brian Urlacher burst onto the pro football scene in 2000 like few rookies ever have, almost immediately drawing comparisons to the great middle linebackers of the Bears' past: the Canton-enshrined Bill George, Dick Butkus, and Mike Singletary.
Players who receive that kind of public praise as rookies often experience a fall, when it becomes fashionable to label them "overrated." With Urlacher, that fall has been particularly hard, and it culminated last season when The Sporting News polled eight scouts and two TV analysts and asked them to name the most overrated player in the league. Urlacher came in first.
Dealing with a label like "overrated" presents challenges because it balances both a player's quality and his public perception. A player could be really, really good -- one of the best at his position -- and still be overrated if the media label him as the best ever.
Since his rookie year, I haven't heard many fans or members of the media calling Urlacher the best at his position. But he's generally named as one of the top few linebackers in football. Is that an accurate perception?
I watched Urlacher on every play of the Bears' 38-6 shellacking of the Lions to find out. And what I saw was, I feel confident in saying, one of the best games any linebacker will have this year.
It started on the very first play, when the Lions' Roy Williams had a 17-yard gain. It was lousy coverage in the Bears' secondary, but a truly inspired play by Urlacher, who lined up as a middle linebacker but sprinted downfield when Joey Harrington released his pass. Urlacher got to the sideline in time to assist on the tackle. I don't know if there's a single other middle linebacker who would be able to get to a receiver on the sideline 17 yards downfield. Urlacher is as fast as advertised.
But with the exception of part of the 2004 season, when a hamstring injury slowed him down, speed has never been the question when it comes to assessing Urlacher's play. The real question is whether Urlacher can stop the run, and in the past he's had some criticism for hesitating instead of taking on blocks at the point of attack.
Is he capable of shoving aside a fullback and stuffing a running back on third-and-one? In 2002 Paul Zimmerman picked Urlacher as the middle linebacker on his all-pro team, but he sounded about as enthusiastic about it as he'd feel about a Sunday afternoon dental appointment: "by process of elimination, I was left with Urlacher, who continues to bother me by his failure to take on blockers, even in short-yardage situations."
I don't necessarily think it's Urlacher's fault that he hasn't been taking on blocks. When Urlacher was a rookie, he often lined up near the line of scrimmage, ready to stop a fullback dead in his tracks. But in recent years Urlacher has lined up farther from the line of scrimmage, as Lovie Smith attempts to take advantage of his coverage skills. This means less of the great run-stuffing that you see with linebackers like Mike Peterson of the Jaguars and Jeremiah Trotter of the Eagles.
I saw no evidence of a deficiency in run-stopping ability on Urlacher's part on Sunday. The Lions opened their third drive with a Kevin Jones run, and when Jones got past the line of scrimmage he shifted direction in an attempt to cut back inside. Urlacher was right there waiting for him, making a beautiful form tackle. The Lions couldn't get much going on the ground against the Bears, and I think the combination of Urlacher, second-year defensive tackle Tommie Harris, and underrated nose man Ian Scott makes it likely that many teams will have the same struggles.
Many linebackers specialize, either in short-yardage downs or in obvious passing situations. The rest of the time they're on the sidelines. Urlacher almost always stays on the field, and what makes him especially dangerous against the pass is that he's not just capable of covering receivers, but he also rushes the quarterback.
Urlacher had two sacks against the Lions, but even when he didn't reach Harrington in time he made an impact on his blitzes. On one blitz he came to the inside, crossing the face of Lions right tackle Kelly Butler and forcing Butler to commit to picking up the inside blitz. That left the outside wide open, and cornerback Jerry Azumah leveled Harrington.
What's most impressive about Urlacher's speed isn't how quickly he can move in a straight line, but the way he can get to full speed almost instantly. On his second sack, Harrington was flushed from the pocket and tried to run to his left. Urlacher was several yards away when Harrington first made his move, but he pursued almost instantly and brought Harrington down before he had a chance to get beyond the pocket. Urlacher is, simply, the best pass-rushing middle linebacker in football. Now in his sixth year, Urlacher has 29.5 career sacks. No one else at his position is close. In the last six years, here are the sack numbers some of the league's other top inside linebackers have accumulated:
|*Note: 3 of Edwards's 4.5 sacks
came as an outside linebacker
in his last two years with Kansas City.
So, to answer the question, Is Urlacher overrated? No. He might have been a few years ago, when sportswriters proclaimed him ready for Canton before he had completely proven himself, but right now he's one of the league's best linebackers.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.
44 comments, Last at 04 Oct 2005, 4:41am by dead meadow