Brian Urlacher, the Bears' accidental middle linebacker: 'They did the right thing'

Brian Urlacher, the Bears' accidental middle linebacker: 'They did the right thing'

Call him perhaps the Bears’ all-time Accidental Draft Hit. Indeed, Brian Urlacher landed in Chicago as much by chance as by Bears' choice. That Urlacher this weekend is a Hall of Fame finalist sets the stage for an exclamation point to the reality that it was the fortuitous choice/chance for both.

Going into the 2000 draft, the Bears held the No. 9 pick of the first round, and they had a cluster of players they’d determined to be worth that level of pick. Urlacher was among those.

When the Philadelphia Eagles selected defensive tackle Corey Simon at No. 6, the Bears still had three of their targets on the board: Virginia running back Thomas Jones, Michigan State wide receiver Plaxico Burress and Urlacher. The Bears were good with any of the three, so decided that they would stay at No. 9, assured of getting one of the group.

The Arizona Cardinals at No. 7 chose Jones. Inside the Pittsburgh Steelers’ draft room, a furious debate ensued; coach Bill Cowher wanted Urlacher but was overruled and the Steelers selected Burress. The Bears then made Urlacher their call.

Mark Hatley, then vice president in charge of personnel, once confided to this reporter that serious Bears thought was given to playing Urlacher at safety. Hatley and the Dick Jauron coaching staff reasoned that Urlacher’s mix of size, speed, instincts and skills had the potential of producing a safety unlike any ever seen in the NFL.

After all, he had been an All-American at New Mexico playing safety, so maybe yes, maybe no.

“I’m not sure how I’d have been as a safety in the NFL, to tell the truth,” Urlacher said, laughing. “I would’ve gotten better and could’ve played safety, but I don’t think I would’ve had the impact back there that I did at middle linebacker. I was closer to the ball and could make more plays up there.

“They did the right thing, for sure.”

Elite criteria

Longtime Hall of Fame selector and McCann Memorial Award winner Ira Miller once shared with me one of his criteria for selection into the NFL’s ultimate Ring of Honor: “If you were to write the history of professional football,” Ira said, “would you have to include this guy by name?”

Not every inductee reaches that Ira criterion, but any history of the NFL arguably should include Urlacher, a 2018 finalist up for selection to the game’s Hall of Fame on Saturday in advance of Super Bowl LII. That game is being played in Minneapolis on the same date — Feb. 4 — 11 years after Urlacher made his lone Super Bowl appearance, in the Bears’ 29-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

The attention to his candidacy has necessarily put more of a spotlight on the situation than Urlacher would like. In this writer’s experience covering his full career, Urlacher was a great conversationalist one-on-one, but got progressively less comfortable the more cameras and microphones arrived in front of him.

“(Hall of Fame talk) has been going on for some time now, and I think people think I think about it more than I do, because it’s really not on my mind all that much,” Urlacher said. “I honestly don’t think about that stuff, just take it as it comes. Me worrying about it isn’t going to change anything.

“I’ve heard from a lot of guys, a lot of guys who’ve been here and some were disappointed. Kevin Mawae (New York Jets center, 2018 finalist and former Bears assistant offensive line coach) gave me the best advice: ‘Just enjoy the process.’

“If it doesn’t happen, I’ll be OK.”

Talent transcending scheme

Mawae told Talk of Fame Radio’s Clark Judge that Urlacher was a more difficult matchup for him than fellow finalist Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens. The reason runs counter to perceptions/misperceptions that Urlacher was a speed linebacker and Lewis the more physical presence.

“Kevin told me, ‘You always gave me a hard time, because you would hit me,’” Urlacher said. “That’s probably the opposite of what people think. I tried to run into those (offensive) guys.”

Urlacher’s statistical achievements, Pro Bowl selections and such stand on their own. He was named defensive rookie of the year in 2000, defensive player of the year in 2005, and to the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2000s, along with Derrick Brooks and Ray Lewis, the former already in the Hall of Fame and the latter now a selectee with Urlacher.

But to put him in a broader context: Urlacher was defensive rookie of the year in one scheme, defensive player of the year in a dramatically different one and an All-Decade selection for his combined body of work.

“You don’t get the chance very often to coach and be around a player and person like Brian Urlacher,” said Lovie Smith, Bears and Urlacher’s coach from 2004 to 2012, both winding up their Chicago careers that same final season. “He absolutely knew what every player on the defense was supposed to do, on every play.”

Certain players are products of or significantly aided by schemes that maximize their talents and opportunities. Urlacher transcended scheme.

Consider: Operating in the 4-3 scheme of Dick Jauron and Greg Blache, behind a prototypical two-gap front four that included massive tackles Keith Traylor and Ted Washington and 290-pound defensive ends Phillip Daniels and Bryan Robinson, Urlacher was freed to run while the two-gappers engaged offensive linemen. In 2001 he finished with 148 tackles (based on coaches’ film review), six sacks and three interceptions.

In 2002, Washington was out all but two games and the other defensive-line starters missed five games. Urlacher’s year: 214 tackles, 4.5 sacks and seven passes broken up.

Jump to 2005 and the Lovie Smith scheme that lived on fast one-gap linemen tasked with getting through gaps, not engaging blockers. Ends Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye were sub-260 pounds, and tackle Tommie Harris was barely 290 most of the year. Urlacher’s year: 171 tackles, six sacks, five passes broken up.

“That is one thing that shows you how great Brian was,” Smith said. “He put up outstanding numbers in every area — tackles, sacks, pass coverage.”

Brown told, "There are players that can run sideline to sideline and there have been, but not like he did it. You couldn't create a better middle linebacker on a computer to fit in a cover-two scheme.

"He's fast enough. He's smart enough. He's big enough that it made the quarterbacks have to throw over him but fit the ball in just before the safety got there and it was just too hard to do. Most of the time they'd under-throw it and he'd pick it off because he was an athlete. He can jump. He can run. He did everything. He stopped the run. He could run down a fast running back. He could run down a receiver."

Rough start, then ...

Coaches mistakenly positioned Urlacher at strong-side linebacker initially, a job he was given on draft day but lost to Rosevelt Colvin early that preseason. “They just plugged Brian in and I was really upset,” Colvin said in an appearance this week on WSCR-AM. “They put him on the line at ‘SAM’ (strong-side linebacker) and he was just getting pushed around.”

Colvin outplayed Urlacher, the Bears bumped Urlacher inside to middle linebacker and into history, so “If Brian does not call me and give me a ticket to Canton,” Colvin joked, “I’m going to be highly upset.”

Urlacher eventually stepped in at middle linebacker when Barry Minter went down injured in a Wally Pipp moment. Urlacher immediately went on a run of five straight games with at least one sack, with two in the fifth of those games, against the Minnesota Vikings and Daunte Culpepper.

In a 2001 matchup with Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons, Urlacher delivered eight tackles, one for a loss, a sack, forced fumble, interception and returned a Vick fumble 90 yards for a touchdown (Vick didn’t run him down). Later that season Urlacher earned special-teams player of the week honors when he caught a 27-yard pass for the winning touchdown against the Washington Redskins.

As with any Hall of Fame inductee, individual highlights are too many to chronicle entirely. But the Bears’ legendary 24-23 Monday Night Football comeback win against the Cardinals, in which Urlacher was credited with 19 tackles, three quarterback hits, two passes deflected and a forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown. "We watched the film,” recalled teammate Devin Hester, “and everybody was saying that he just turned into the Incredible Hulk the last four minutes of the game, just killing people and running over and tackling whoever had the ball.”

It was perhaps the signature moment in a signature career marked by many such moments.

"You knew when you were playing the Chicago Bears that you had to be ready because he was not only going to be ready, he was going to have that defense ready and they were coming at you,” former Los Angeles Rams and Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, himself a member of the Hall of Fame, told

"The best thing that stood out about him as a player was his leadership ability. That's what you want from your middle linebacker. You want him to be a dominant player, but you want him to be a leader on the field and that's what he was."

Matt Nagy's commitment to the run is fine, the Bears just have to run the ball better

Matt Nagy's commitment to the run is fine, the Bears just have to run the ball better

Matt Nagy’s run-pass balance, actually, has been fine in 2019. 

The Bears have run on 40 percent of their plays before the off week, a tick below the NFL average of 41 percent. Nagy is trying to commit to the run, too, on first down: His team has run the ball on 53 percent of its first-and-10 plays this year, slightly above the NFL average of 52 percent. 

On third and short (defined here as fewer than three yards to gain), too, it’s not like Nagy has been willing to ditch the run. The Bears have run on 55 percent of those third and short plays this year, just below the league average of 56 percent. 

Roughly: The Bears’ run-pass balance is the NFL average. That’s okay for an offense not good enough to lean heavily in one direction, like the San Francisco 49ers (56 percent run rate, highest in the NFL) or Kansas City Chiefs (66 percent pass rate, fifth-highest). 

And this doesn’t account for a bunch of quarterback runs, either. Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel have averaged 2.2 rushes per game in 2019; last year, those two averaged 5.1 rushing attempts per game. 

So that doesn’t jive with the narrative of Nagy not being willing to commit to running the ball. He is. The will is there, but the results aren’t. 

So why haven’t the results been there? To get there, we need to take a deep dive into what's gone wrong. 

Most of this article will focus on first and 10 plays, which have a tendency to set a tone for an entire drive. 
And rather surprisingly, the Bears don’t seem to be bad at running the ball on first and 10. Per, The Bears are averaging 4.1 yards per run on first and 10 with a 46 percent success rate — just below the NFL average of 4.3 yards per run and a 48 percent success rate. David Montgomery, taking out three first-and-goal-to-go runs, is averaging 3.7 yards per run on first and 10. 

That’s not great, of course, but Nagy would be pleased if his No. 1 running back was able to grind out three or four yards per run on first down. 

“If I’m calling a run, it needs to be a run and it’s not second and 10, it’s second and seven or six, right? That’s what we need to do,” Nagy said. 

The issue, though, is the Bears are 30th in the NFL in explosive rushing plays, having just three. In a small sample size, Cordarrelle Patterson’s 46-yard dash in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos skews the Bears’ average yards per run on first and 10 higher than it’ll wind up at the end of the year if something isn’t fixed. 

Only Washington and the Miami Dolphins have a worse explosive run rate than the Bears on first-and-10. 

“First down needs to be a better play for us,” Nagy said. “Run or pass.”

Not enough opportunity

There are several damning stats about the Bears’ offense this year, which Nagy acknowledged on Thursday. 

“That’s our offense right now,” Nagy said. “That’s the simple facts. So any numbers that you look at right now within our offense, you could go to a lot of that stuff and say that. We recognize that and we need to get better at that.”

That answer was in reference to Tarik Cohen averaging just 4.5 yards per touch, but can apply to this stat, too: 

The Bears are averaging 22 first-and-10 plays per game, per Pro Football Reference, the fourth-lowest average in the NFL (only the Jets, Steelers and Washington are lower). The team’s lackluster offense, which ranks 28th in first downs per game (17.4) certainly contributes heavily to that low number. 

But too: The Bears have been assessed eight penalties on first-and-10 plays, as well as one on a first-and-goal from the Minnesota Vikings’ five-yard line (a Charles Leno Jr. false start) and another offset by defensive holding (illegal shift vs. Oakland). 

“There’s probably not a lot of teams that are doing real great on second and long or third and long,” Nagy said. “So the other part of that too is you’re getting into first and 20 and now its second and 12.”

Can passing game help?

The Bears’ are gaining 6.3 yards per play on first-and-10 passes, the fourth-worst average in the NFL behind the Dolphins, Bengals and, interestingly, Indianapolis Colts (the Colts’ dominant offensive line, though, is allowing for an average of 5 1/2 yards per carry in those situations). 

So if the Bears aren’t having much success throwing on first-and-10, it could lead opposing defenses to feel more comfortable to sell out and stop the run. Or opposing defenses know they can stop the run without any extra effort, making it more difficult for the Bears to pass on first down. 

This is sort of a chicken-or-egg kind of deal. If the Bears run the ball more effectively on first down, it should help their passing game and vice versa. But having opposing defenses back off a bit with an effective passing game certainly couldn’t hurt. 

Situational tendencies

The Bears are atrocious at running the ball on second-and-long, and while 19 plays isn’t a lot, it’s too many. The Bears averaged 2.7 yards per carry on second-and-8-to-10-yard downs before their off week on those 19 plays, which either need to be fixed or defenestrated from a second-story window at Halas Hall. 

But on second and medium (four to seven yards, since we’re going with Nagy’s definition of run success here), the Bears are actually averaging more yards per carry (4.7) than yards per pass (4.5). Yet they’re passing on two-thirds of those plays, so if you’re looking for somewhere for Nagy to run the ball more, it might be here. 

And when the Bears do get into makable second-and-short (1-3 yards) situations, Nagy is over-committed to the run. The Bears ran on 72 percent of those plays before the off week — nearly 10 percent higher than the league average — yet averaged 1.9 yards per carry on them, 31st in the NFL behind Washington. 

“It's so easy as a player and a coach to get caught up in the trees,” Nagy said. “Especially on offense with some of the struggles that we've had, you get caught up in that and consume yourself with it. There's a right way and a wrong way with it and I feel like the past several days, really all of last week, I've had a good balance of being able to reflect, kinda reload on where we are, and I feel good with the stuff that we've done as a staff, that we've discussed where we're at and then looking for solutions. That's the No. 1 thing here.”

So what’s the solution?

Perhaps sliding Rashaad Coward into the Bears’ starting offensive line will inject some athleticism and physicality at right guard that could start opening up some more holes for the Bears’ backs. Perhaps it means less of Cohen running inside zone.

Perhaps it involves more of J.P. Holtz acting as a quasi-fullback. Perhaps it means getting more out of Adam Shaheen as a blocker. Perhaps it means, generally, better-schemed runs. 

Whatever the combination is, the Bears need to find it. 

But the solution to the Bears’ problem is not to run the ball more. It’s to run it better. 

Bears Injury Report: Trubisky practices in full Thursday

Bears Injury Report: Trubisky practices in full Thursday

It appears like Chicago Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky will, in fact, make his return to the starting lineup Sunday against the New Orleans Saints after practicing in full Thursday as he recovers from a left shoulder injury.

Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (concussion) and defensive end Bilal Nichols (hand) were also full participants and both should return to action in Week 7.

Guard Ted Larsen was limited on Thursday and all indications suggest Rashaad Coward will start in place of Kyle Long, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve this week.

As for the Saints, running back Alvin Kamara did not participate in practice as he rehabs knee and ankle injuries. His status is likely to be a game-time decision.

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