The Bears believe we’ll see a different Hunter Hillenmeyer now as Brian Urlacher’s replacement than the one who held the job when their perennial Pro Bowl middle linebacker suffered a series of injuries in 2004.
With Urlacher out for the season due to a dislocated wrist, Hillenmeyer is being counted on to man the middle. The Bears went 0-7 in 2004 without Urlacher.
“We feel that Hunter has the best grasp of the entire defense, being in that role, and our team is comfortable with him playing, and again he played well last night,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said Monday at Halas Hall after announcing the end of Urlacher’s season.
To be sure, the Bears had options. There was the possibility of moving Lance Briggs from the weak side to the middle.
“I don’t need to move,” Briggs said. “Hunter is capable. Hunter is very capable, more than capable.
“We’ve had good depth at our linebacker position.”
They also had the opportunity to sign former Bucs star Derrick Brooks, who played under Smith with the Bucs and knows the Bears’ system like the back of his hand.
“We’re probably looking more at guys maybe with special teams value but a guy who can play also,” Smith said, which pretty much rules out Brooks. “We’ll keep all of our options open.”
The options closed quickly after Smith said that because it took about five minutes and the Bears signed former Panther and Jaguar linebacker Tim Shaw to help special teams. He was second on the Panthers in special teams tackles in 2007.
The Bears’ defense on Sunday held a Packer offense that hadn’t punted in preseason to 226 yards, including 122 when Hillenmeyer was on the field. Of the 226 yards, 50 came on one play to win the game. The Packers had no sustained touchdown drives beyond the last one and that came on a mistake that Smith on Monday all but admitted was the fault of safety Kevin Payne for not providing deep support for cornerback Nate Vasher.
“I judge our (current) defense based on how we played the time that Brian was hurt or out until the end of that game,” Briggs said. “And that’s the type of defense we have to play, minus that big play at the end of the game.
“We played shutout defense. When you get an offense that gets 220 total yards and most of it comes on the last play of the game, that’s the type of defense," he said.
Hillenmeyer played strong side linebacker for the Bears part of 2004 through part of 2008 and had expected to compete for the spot with Nick Roach and Pisa Tinoisamoa in training camp.But they never really got the chance.
Coaches put him at backup middle linebacker and now it’s looking like a blessing in disguise because he got more practice reps in the middle than any time since 2004.
“Truth be told, at the start of training camp I wanted to be over on the strong side to compete for a starting job there, but it turns out to be a good thing that I got that experience, and it’s not anything new,” he said. “Even though it’s been since my second year in the league that I’ve played middle linebacker, I’ve been the backup nickel middle linebacker for years. So assignment-wise and comfort-wise from a practice standpoint, it’s not anything new. It’s just a little different in game situations.”
Hillenmeyer has had success in the middle, even if it wasn’t in the NFL.
“Honestly, I feel more comfortable in the middle,” he said. “My best year in college was the one year out of four (at Vanderbilt) that I played in the middle. I loved playing middle when I got the chance in my second year, but obviously, you know, with a guy like Brian here, I was never going to get to play in the middle except for something like this happening.”
Hillenmeyer is well aware of the 0-7 record the Bears had in 2004 when he played the middle.
“We were also not the same football team then,” he said.
The Bears were in Smith’s first year as coach and Hillenmeyer’s first real year as a contributor.
“But it’s a team sport,” Hillenmeyer said. “There is no one guy that can have that profound of an impact so as important as (Urlacher) is, we need everybody to step their game up and the difference for me is when I was filling in for him then, those were my first starts as an NFL football player. That was a long time ago. That was six years ago. Hopefully, I have learned and I will have a lot more experience and a lot more comfort factor out there than I would have then.”