BOURBONNAIS, Ill. Midway through the Bears Monday practice, Nick Roach intercepted a Jay Cutler pass in the seven-on-seven drill that decidedly favors the offense. It was notable in part because Roach has never had an NFL interception in his five NFL seasons.
Considerably more notable, however, was where Roach was when he made the pick.
Roach, 26, for the fifth straight day, was in the middle linebacker spot that has been the domain of Brian Urlacher for more than a decade and still is, pending Urlachers return from knee soreness. Roach is expected to be the starting middle linebacker Thursday against the Denver Broncos.
And he is being considered by the Bears as the possible successor to Urlacher, whenever that time comes.
All of which makes Thursdays preseason game against Denver a little more interesting, given where Roach is expected to play.
The perception that the Bears have not planned for life after Urlacher is not exactly accurate. Urlacher is in the final year of his contract (so is Roach) and not contemplating retirement, having just turned 34 in May. The Bears have not addressed his contract situation, meaning that free agency is an obvious possibility, but thats a story thatll play itself out in the months ahead.
For now, the Bears believe they have a middle linebacker in the pipeline. He just happens to be starting at strongside linebacker. For now.
We feel very comfortable with Nick as our middle linebacker, coach Lovie Smith said.
Smith was comfortable moving Roach to middle linebacker once before. When Urlacher went down in 2009 with a fractured wrist, Roach started three games at Mike linebacker. It didnt work especially well and Hunter Hillenmeyer went to the middle (which also didnt particularly work, either).
But Roach has had two more full seasons in the Chicago defense, two more years of learning under a master in Urlacher as well as Smith and coordinator Rod Marinelli.
Its obviously better now being around it longer and watching Brian for a couple more years, Roach told CSNChicago.com. So theres definitely a higher level of comfort knowing what to expect. Im good with it and knowing how to react.
One popular notion was that the soft-spoken Roach simply wasnt loud enough for the job. There were other reasons, however, having nothing to do with decibels.
Nick knows the defense, Lance Briggs said. Nick knows the defense as well as anyone. The Lord didnt bless his vocals to go higher than what they go. He has a max on it.
But Nicks good at it. He knows how to communicate. We all know how to communicate. Thats the key.
The Bears with the SmithMarinelli defensive scheme will not spend a high pick to draft a middle linebacker (or a nose tackle, for that matter; Stephen Paea is projected as a three-technique ultimately). Shea McClellin is not going to middle linebacker.
More to the point, the Bears 2012 draft was noteworthy for what they did not do as well as for what they did. The lack of a move to select an offensive lineman was a statement on what the organization felt about the line.
The Bears, despite Briggs and Urlacher both past 30 years of age, also did nothing to put a young linebacker in the pipeline. Blake Costanzo was signed last offseason but primarily for special teams. Five-year-vet Geno Hayes was signed but at 226 pounds is not a middle linebacker.
The Bears did look at a linebacker in the draft but did not have a need that overrode their draft board and made no move.
Part of the reason was Roach.
The Bears are explicit on what they require a middle linebacker to be. He must be more than 230 pounds (Roach is 234). He has to be mobile enough to drop and cover in the middle (Roach was lettered in track and basketball in high school). And he absolutely must be intelligent enough to have full mastery of the defense (Roach is a Northwestern graduate).
Indeed, the mobility and intelligence combination is critical because the Bears Mike linebacker cannot come off the field in passing situations he calls the defense.
In the case of Urlacher, hes the No. 1 communicator, making all the checks, giving all the alerts, pre-snaps, telling everybody in the huddle what to look for, Roach said. His communication is what keeps everybody at the highest level.
Roach does not fit the traditional stereotype of a middle linebacker, a run-stopping plugger in times past. But the game has changed, which is why a Ray Lewis is playing lighter.
And Urlacher fits no mold, either. His career success has been based on speed, not bulk. The Bears have ranked second and fifth in run defense the past two years with linebackers whose first requirement is being able to play in space.
Which is where Roach was Monday when he made his interception.