So there it was. Minnesota facing a 4th-and-1 on the Bears' 36-yard line, trailing by three with 4:12 to play in the third quarter. Gus Frerotte faked and rolled out looking for tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser, only to have him smothered by Bears Linebacker Brian Urlacher. With his primary option covered, Frerotte turfed the ball, giving it over to the Bears on downs.
“That a baby, Urlacher” I shouted delightfully. Then something surprising and somewhat sad hit me. This was the first play of this season that I could actually recall Brian Urlacher making a decidedly big play.
It’s a very sad thought as a Bear fan to think Urlacher could be loosing steam in his career, but the evidence is hard to ignore. If ever there is a big play being made on the defensive side of the ball this season, No. 54 just doesn’t seem to be in the area.
It’s not just his play that evokes doubt. It goes without saying Urlacher is the life force of the defense; he has been since he’s been in Chicago. When he is at his most dominate, so are the Bears.
Who could forget the Oct. 16, 2006 game at Arizona? Down by 20 points and dealing with an inept offense that committed six turnovers, the Bears' defense led an inspiring charge to get back in the game, scoring two touchdowns and forcing a three-and-out which lead to a game-winning punt return by Devin Hester.
Right at the center of this valiant effort was Urlacher, who had an astonishing 19 tackles and forced a fumble, which led to the second defensive touchdown. He seemingly enforced a silently confident swagger that let his teammates know they simply were not going to lose that game.
Now that swagger just isn’t there. It wasn’t there last year when the Bears fell to 27th in the league, defensively. And it isn’t there this season. They Bears sit at 4-3 with all three losses coming from blown fourth-quarter leads.
Then there was Sunday’s game against Minnesota where they allowed a Viking offense, led by Gus Frerotte, the same Gus Frerotte whose career highlight was injuring his neck slamming his head into a concrete wall, to put up 41 points against them while nearly squandering another fourth-quarter lead.
I am as much a believer in the “a win is a win” philosophy as anybody, but when you let a Gus Frerotte offense put up those kinds of numbers on you, it’s not encouraging. The Bears just aren’t making enough plays, and one can’t help but think it all starts with the middle linebacker.
Now this is hardly to say Brian Urlacher is the sole reason for the decline of the defense. He certainly is not responsible for the defensive line's inability to put any type of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Nor is he to blame for a starting secondary that is seemingly in competition with each other to see who can miss the most games per season. But every team needs a leader to feed off of, and it just doesn’t seem like Urlacher is doing the job right now.
One has to think that one reason for this is the series of injuries he has been dealing with. It was well documented he was plagued with an arthritic back condition last year, and while he claimed it wasn’t a serious injury, it looked to have an impact on his play.
Then there was his offseason neck surgery. Urlacher just isn’t the type of guy to use these injuries as an excuse for his deteriorating play, but Chicago fans have to be skeptical. In fact, it’s almost crucial for us to believe this is the cause of his decreased production, because if it’s not the cause, then that only leaves one explanation: He’s just not the same player he once was.
Brain Urlacher has been everything Bear fans could have ever wanted, not just because of his great play, but because of how he carries himself as a player. He is an unflashy superstar and about as good a leader as there is in the NFL, never gloating about his accomplishments and always holding himself accountable when he screws up.
What I always liked most about him was how brutally honest he was about the play of himself and his defensive teammates, never seeming even remotely interested in giving a politically correct, media-friendly answer. And while he truly doesn’t have anything to prove as a player, the apparent deterioration of his skills on the field is a very depressing thought that one hopes is nothing more than an extended cold streak.
The highlight of his season seven games in should be more than smothering Jimmy Kleinsasser on a bootleg (though his death stare towards Andrea Kramer for saying their Week One win over the Colts was an upset was a pretty awesome highlight in itself).
Right now, the Bears are 4-3 team that should be 7-0, or 6-1 at the absolute worse. They really do have all the elements needed to make an extended run in the playoffs. They have a balanced offense and nearly all the defensive pieces from the NFC Championship team just two seasons ago. But right now, they are in danger of squandering a great opportunity, and it mostly stems from a lack of fire on the defensive side of the ball.
As much talent as they have, they should not be struggling to win games when the offense scores 48 points. When you are lacking fire, one place to look is always the backbone of the unit, and the backbone of this team is, no doubt, Urlacher.
The same guy who spearheaded the monstrous comeback at Arizona two years ago doesn’t seem to be around at the moment ,and he is very badly needed. Much of the success this season will come from whether or not he can return to form and in turn inspire a select few underachievers (Tommie Harris, I am glaring directly at you) on the defensive side of the ball to pick up their play.
Right now, it seems an inconsistent defense is on the brink of ruining the season put together by a steady offense, and that is never a statement that should be uttered by a Bears fan.
Had he not missed the vast majority of his rookie season due to injury, Kevin Payne quite possibly could be the single most bad ass safety in the NFL right now. As it stands, he still seems to be needing a little polish to truly be considered amongst the games elite at the position.
But at the rate he is progressing, there is no reason to doubt he won’t be there very soon. And who better to mentor him to greatness than Mike Brown?
Speaking of Brown, it’s seven games in and he is still healthy! Though, he too seems to be missing a portion of what made him such a great young player, it’s just fantastic to see someone who has been dealt such a rotten hand over the past few years actually get a chance to play. When you have missed as much time as he has and are still beloved by Bears fans, you know you’ve done something right.
Jerry Angelo’s greatest move in recent years has to be the one-year extension he gave Kyle Orton into next season. With each passing week, K.O. seems like he is more on his way to being a long-term quarterback and having that extra year under contract can only be beneficial to determining his worth.
Some sort of cosmic force must have sensed the guilt Marty Booker felt for dropping two potential touchdown passes. There simply had to be something else directing Booker on his 51-yard, third-quarter touchdown catch and run because he just simply isn’t as fast as he looked on that play.
Lastly, I have officially had it with Nathan Vasher. Either take the field or go on IR because everyone is tired of your weekly will he or won’t he routine. It’s pointless, because you never play!