- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2007

MIAMI — The face of the Chicago Bears since his arrival in 2000 as an unknown safety turned middle linebacker, Brian Urlacher knows what Windy City Football is all about.

Walter Payton.

Defense.

Linebackers.

“Our fans are blue collar, they love defense and they love linebackers,” Urlacher said.

Just like those fans loved Dick Butkus in the 1960s and Mike Singletary in the 1980s — two of five Bears linebackers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — they hold Urlacher and fellow Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs in similar esteem.

Urlacher and Briggs combined for more than 271 tackles this season and for the second consecutive season helped the Bears to an NFC North title and were named to the Pro Bowl. For the first time, the duo will play in the Super Bowl when Chicago faces Indianapolis on Sunday night.

And they’re fully aware of the reputation of past Bears linebackers.

“It’s a huge honor to play the same position as those guys,” Urlacher said. “At the same time, people compare me to them all the time, and it’s not fair for me to be compared to them because they’re in the Hall of Fame.”

Along with strong-side linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, Urlacher and Briggs helped the Bears finish fifth in yards allowed and second in scoring average during a 13-3 season. In the postseason, Urlacher and Briggs have combined for 26 tackles.

They will need to play even better against the Colts. Urlacher has to keep tabs on Peyton Manning’s constant audibles and track tight end Dallas Clark down the middle of the field. Briggs, the weak-side backer, will be expected to retreat into coverage, read Manning’s eyes and step in front of receivers.

Before joining Chicago’s coaching staff, defensive coordinator Ron Rivera worked under Jim Johnson in Philadelphia. Johnson is a pressure-oriented coach, blitzing linebackers and leaving his defensive backs by their lonesome. Rivera is nearly the opposite. His linebackers are expected to be as adept in coverage as they are in run support. Chicago’s starting linebackers recorded only one sack (by Briggs) in the regular season but had five interceptions and 20 pass breakups.

Urlacher entered the season with 32.5 sacks in six years.

“We don’t blitz Brian a lot,” coach Lovie Smith said. “Everything we’ve asked him to do, he’s done it well. He’s gone beyond the call of duty. I think he is the best player in football. I’d even make that statement.”

What makes Urlacher a seven-time Pro Bowl player and one of the best is his athleticism. He’s 6-foot-4 and 258 pounds and is still fast enough to keep up with receivers and running backs.

“We played the Bears when I was in St. Louis, and when he came onto the field, I didn’t realize how big he was,” linebackers coach Bob Babich said. “When I got to coach him, I got to realize that not only is he a great athlete and a big-time playmaker, but he’s a smart player. He’s definitely our quarterback out there.”

Urlacher was drafted ninth overall by the Bears in 2000. He was a safety at New Mexico, but then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache and linebackers coach Dale Lindsey moved him to middle linebacker.

“As an inside linebacker, he has it all,” Smith said.

Although Urlacher was the defensive player of the year in 2005, Smith and Babich believe he has been even better this season.

“This year, he’s taken things to a new level as far as understanding what to do and where to be,” Babich said. “A lot of teams scheme for him, and that opens up opportunities for other players. He’s done his job just as well, if not better, this year.”

Urlacher is expected to get even better, and it will be for the Bears — his nine-year contract doesn’t expire until 2011.

Briggs’ status is more murky. He will be highly sought after on the free agent market because of his age (25) and production (130, 107 and 126 tackles the last three years). The Bears also could elect to make him their franchise player and pay him more than $7 million a season.

“Sometimes I think about it,” Briggs said. “We haven’t really talked, so we’ll see what happens contract-wise. I’ve honored my contract and played hard.”

Although he has produced big numbers the last three seasons, Briggs’ coaches still see a maturation in the way he prepares each week.

“Lance has gotten better and better each year,” Rivera said. “The only guy that can slow down Lance is Lance.”

Said Babich: “We’re at the point now where we think he’s a great outside linebacker. He fits our system perfectly, and he’s become a coach on the field. He’s not as vocal as Brian, but he knows his assignments and everybody else’s assignments, and that allows him to play faster and make more plays.”

Briggs has no problem playing in Urlacher’s massive shadow.

“It allows me to play football,” Briggs said. “The weak-side position this scheme, you’re kind of called on to make play after play, so when Lovie came here, he said, ‘I want you to be the Derrick Brooks on this defense. You will be relied on to make play after play.’

“If I played in the shadows of a guy who’s a jerk, it might be different.”

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