Everyone seems to recognize the Chicago Bears as a defensively minded team. You've got the Monsters of the Midway listed among the upper echelon of namesake defenses over the past 50 years. You've got all the wonderful footage of smash mouth football in the snow, sleet, rain, mud, and above all else the wind. It's because of this historical narrative that when it comes to the prowess of the Bears defense, many times we're over-rated and at the same time it causes players to be underrated just as much.
Either we've got a terrible defense that is struggling mightily and being carried on the back of one or two players while the pundits and national talking heads still talk about the dominating Bears defense, or we have a fantastic top notch defense and somehow we're downplayed as a defense because of the abysmal offense and historical comparions. Well historical comparisons be damned, we've got the best linebacker group in the league this year.
They say that linebackers are as much of a team within a team as the offensive line is made out to be, especially in the cover two defense. The line is usually extremely focused on generating pressure, so actually making the plays and getting the tackles usually falls on the linebackers' broad shoulders. The MLB often plays the center fielder, covering wide swaths of space with the SLB and WLB doing their own respective jobs which can include covering guys in motion, funneling the runner in, or even rushing the QB in some circumstances. Working together to make sure the tackles are made, the receivers and runners are brought down immediately, passes are broken up, and fumbles caused requires a ton of communication and even more trust in the guys next to you to do their job as much as you are doing yours..
Thankfully, we've got one of the best groups of linebackers in the entire league. It would be like a pitching rotation consisting of Tim Lincecum, CC Sabathia, Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay. It's truly an amazing collection of guys up and down the depth chart.
1. Brian Urlacher - You've got to start somewhere and you might as well start with one of the most iconic and skilled MLBs in the game today. We're talking about the 2000 Defensive Rookie of the Year winner, 2001 Football Digest DPOY, 2005 NFL DPOY, 4x All-Pro selection, and six time Pro-Bowler. This guy is the prototype that the intelligent leading center field linebacker was based off of. His skill in the middle of the field dissecting opposing offenses, reading the quarterback, and being where he needs to be at all times often causes people to overlook his at times freakish overall speed and quickness for a guy his size. The story may be in the closing stanzas for this fantastic player, but don't write off his ability just because of his age and injury history. When he stays on the field he is still a monster, tying Ray Lewis for the second most passes deflected for LBs in 2008, and racking up 79 tackles and two interceptions.
2. Lance Briggs - His partner in crime, Lance Briggs, has lived up to his big contract since a couple of years back when there were talks of Briggs being traded to avoid giving him the big money deal. He's since been proven to be money well spent making the Pro-Bowl the last two years for a total of five times, and be named All-Pro last year making him a three time selection. Lance is not always content to playing second fiddle to the face of the franchise in Urlacher though. Who was the only LB with more passes deflected than Urlacher and Lewis? That'd be Briggs with 13 in 2008 and the most of any LB that year. Briggs is an extremely instinctive player seemingly knowing where the opposing player is going before they do. Briggs is known around the league as one of the best play makers at the position with his solid coverage, sound tackling, and above average ability to get pressure on the QB when called upon. Lance Briggs looks great on his own, and looks even better along side players like Urlacher and our next LB.
3. Pisa Tinoisamoa - This is a guy that most people that aren't football junkies just don't know about. If you ask a lot of Bears fans about this guy, one of the most common responses will simply be a quizzical "You mean that guy that got injured other than Urlacher?" This is almost entirely due to the misfortune Pisa had in being drafted by the St. Louis Rams. During the best of times the St. Louis Rams are known for their offense, whether it was the Greatest Show on Turf days, or simply the more recent past of Steven Jackson bulldozing and carrying an entire team on his shoulders. It doesn't leave much national coverage for the Rams defense in the years before the fall, and even less after. However far beneath the radar it may have been PT who was quietly leading his team in tackles in 2003, 2004, and 2005 before injury-shortened campaigns derailed him in '06 and '07. Of course, injuries can't keep a great player down forever and he bounced back in '08 when healthy and led the team once again. His only downside is directly linked to his injury issues and that's being a bit undersized. He reacts quick in run support and is known to focus in on the ball, has a good punch to keep blockers from locking in, has good fluid hips and mirrors receivers extremely well allowing little cushion to develop. Pisa also does very well releasing into zones, but when thrown at he stays in the receiver's face during the catch and launches into the tackle with solid, jarring, colliding tackles backed up by great wrap-up technique.
Now then, I'm sure you are asking. Why am I going after 2008 numbers? It was the last full season for both Pisa and Brian. Also, in the last season that all three guys were on their respective fields they were all top 25 in the league at LB in tackles, with Urlacher and Briggs doing so for the same team. While tackles aren't the end all, be all, of stats, concerning linebackers they are a fairly good indicator of two things. Being in position, and bringing the player down. Considering those are two of the most important responsibilities for linebackers it's as good a stat as any for quick and dirty examination.
No group is complete without looking at the back ups that are likely going to see the field at some point during the year due to injury due to the nature of the game of football. Thankfully, our good fortune continues there as well. I won't go into as much detail as I did with the other guys simply because very few people are interested in hearing about the accolades of back up linebackers, but suffice to say they are both fantastic players that could likely find a starting job on a few other teams in the league.
Hunter Hillenmeyer is an example of what people are talking about when they say someone might not be a great athlete, but they sure are a great football player. HH played with a veteran's mind for the game well before he actually was one, and now that he actually has those years under his belt he more than makes up for his lack of speed and quickness with route knowledge and proper paths to the ball. As I've mentioned before about Hunter he is also a backup that you don't worry about not doing what he's supposed to do when he gets in the game, he's a live player off the bench and is just as willing to rattle Adrian Peterson as he is try to cover a TE.
Nick Roach is an interesting prospect originally out of Northwestern. He went undrafted and after spending a bit of time in San Diego came home to roost with the Bears. He fits the mold of players the Bears like due to both his well above average speed and intelligence. He's got great range and often played from sideline to sideline in college with no issues in coverage. Roach is also well known for having fairly sure hands when it comes to taking down picks. Now that he's received a few starts due to injuries last year it seems the young gun's confidence has went through the roof and is now playing with his head on a swivel, using that speed to its full extent. It's been said a few times by PT that Roach has a lot of the same abilities that he has, but is just more athletic due to the lack of recent injuries and age.
There isn't a weak link in the bunch, and with the upgraded defensive line you can expect to see a big year from the entire group. Barring a streak of injuries, this group should go down as the best LB group in the league this year.