Both the Chicago Bears and the Pittsburgh Steelers have star linebackers who have undergone arthroscopic surgery on their left knees this week. While both Brian Urlacher and James Harrison have stated they hope to be back in their team's respective starting lineups when they take the field Week 1, there remains a distinct possibility one or both could miss some time early on in the 2012 regular season.
For the Steelers, this isn't cause for major concern. Yes, Harrison is an excellent player who makes the Steelers better when he is on the field. However, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau won't be losing much sleep over this development after he goes back and watches film from the month-long stretch in 2011 when Harrison missed four games because of a broken bone in his eye socket.
During that stretch, the Steelers' defense barely missed a beat. Fellow linebacker Lamar Woodley picked up his game and collected 7.5 sacks in the four games Harrison was out.
It's not that Harrison isn't a talent—he is. But the nature of his outside linebacker position in the 3-4 defense LeBeau runs, with its emphasis on zone blitzing, makes it easier for the team to pick up the slack during his absence.
Meanwhile, things are a bit more tenuous over in Chicago.
Urlacher, who hasn't practiced since July 31st, holds a place of vital importance in Lovie Smith's 4-3 defense. From running sideline to sideline after ball-carriers to the deep drops in the classic Tampa 2 call where Urlacher lines up next to Lance Briggs over the A gap and flies 20 yards backwards at the snap of the ball, his physical ability within the scheme, even at age 34, is hard to replicate.
More than the physical aspect, however, what can't be replaced if Urlacher misses any amount of time is his uncanny ability when it comes to playing the cat-and-mouse game with the opposing quarterback prior to the snap of the ball.
As the NFL has evolved into the pass-happy league fans currently enjoy, defenses have had to combat aerial assaults by disguising their pre-snap looks until the last possible second. Urlacher has become a de facto coach on the field, able to diagnose what the offense is trying to do and getting his guys adjusted just prior to the start of the play with shocking efficiency.
Briggs and Nick Roach will have to pick up the slack during Urlacher's absence, but neither shares Urlacher's invaluable talent in the pre-snap phase of the game.
Losing both Urlacher's playmaking ability and his ability to quarterback the defense for any length of time would be a serious blow for the Bears.