With Urlacher causing LB shuffle, Briggs is the strongest on weak side
BY MARK POTASH firstname.lastname@example.org December 6, 2012 9:28PM
Chicago Bears outside linebacker Lance Briggs (55) celebrates with middle linebacker Brian Urlacher (54) after Briggs sacked Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert during the second half of an NFL football game in Jacksonville, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012.(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
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With linebacker Brian Urlacher out because of a hamstring injury, the Bears’ Plan B is set in stone: Nick Roach moves from the strong side to replace Urlacher in the middle, and reserve Geno Hayes replaces Roach on the strong side.
Lance Briggs stays on the weak side. He always does.
Coach Lovie Smith’s defense thrives on versatility — ends who can play tackle, tackles who can play the nose or the three-technique, safeties who can play strong or free and linebackers who can play where they’re needed.
But Briggs won’t budge.
‘‘I could play it; all of us could play it because the positions are interchangeable,’’ Briggs said Thursday. ‘‘But I don’t want to play it.’’
Not many players have veto power like that at Halas Hall. But Briggs has earned it because he’s the best in the NFL at what he does — play weak-side linebacker in Smith’s defense. He’s in line for his eighth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance.
Briggs is as much the ultimate weak-side linebacker in Smith’s scheme as Urlacher is the ultimate middle linebacker. He has averaged 150 tackles in his eight full seasons. He has more tackles for loss in the last 10 years (721/2) than anybody in the NFL.
Briggs knows how good he is. But he also knows his place — and it’s not Urlacher’s middle-linebacker spot.
‘‘How difficult would it be? This is my 10th year, and I’ve never played ‘Mike,’ ’’ Briggs said. ‘‘It would be easier for me to play ‘Sam’ [strong side]. It would be easier for me to play nickel than it would be for me to play ‘Mike.’ ’’
Though it’s not an impossible transition from weak side to the middle, it’s not a seamless one, either.
‘‘[It’s like] night and day,’’ defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. ‘‘And you never move an A [player]. Once you move an A to another position, he has a chance to, maybe for a while, be a B. You don’t want that. You want your A player in an A position. That’s what they’ve been groomed to play.’’
Still, it remains to be seen how well Plan B will work. With Briggs at the weak side, the Bears still will have two linebackers not playing their best position. Hayes is a fleet, flow-to-the-ball player who started 42 games at the weak side for the Buccaneers from 2009 to ’11.
The strong side, where he’s more likely to face tight ends and blocking backs, could be a challenge. Hayes fell out of favor at Tampa Bay last year after the Bears consistently blocked him to spring Matt Forte (25 carries, 145 yards, one touchdown) for long runs in the Bears’ 24-18 victory in London.
‘‘That weak-side/strong-side [angle] — you need to get away from that,’’ Smith said. ‘‘They’re identical positions. He’s played both, so it’s not really much of an adjustment for him except that he hasn’t played in a while. We’ll be OK.’’
As good as Briggs is, he’s not quite as irreplaceable as Urlacher. When Briggs suffered an injury against the Cowboys in 2007, Jamar Williams had 12 tackles in the second half as his replacement. Williams had 20 tackles against the Rams as a starter in place of Briggs in 2009. Brian Iwuh had a team-high 12 tackles in place of Briggs against the Seahawks in 2010.
We’ll never know if a linebacker corps of Roach-Briggs-Hayes would be more productive than Hayes-Roach-Briggs. Because even if it made sense, it’s not going to happen.
‘‘Is he good enough to do it? Absolutely. He could do anything you asked a linebacker to do,’’ Smith said. ‘‘Would we ever do that? No. There’s a reason we’ve had Lance [at the weak side].
‘‘They’re close together, but there are differences [in the positions]. Lance won’t be playing ‘Mike’ linebacker unless we have everyone else go down, and then we would call on him. That’s not what we’re looking at.’’