Updated: April 19, 2011 5:09AM
Bill Belichick sees what every other coach sees when he studies the Bears’ defense. The greatest coaching mind of his generation speaks glowingly about Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, who not only are playing side by side at an elite level but are playing as well together as few that have come before.
“They’re outstanding players,” Belichick said. “They really complement each other well. They run well. They are smart, instinctive guys that make a lot of plays in the running game [and] passing game. They are hard to block, good tacklers and they really have a nose for the ball. They have great anticipation.
“They do a great job in that scheme for coach [Lovie] Smith and coach [Rod] Marinelli. They are tough guys to get blocked or to throw around, whatever the play is. They factor into a lot of plays.”
Urlacher and Briggs might have enjoyed better seasons individually but never might have played as well together as they have this season. What the Bears have in their two franchise cornerstones is extremely rare, and what they are accomplishing is rarer still in an era that is not kind to linebackers.
Not even in a city where dominant linebackers long have been part of the landscape do Urlacher and Briggs always get the appreciation they deserve.
“I don’t know, but I’d hate to have to live on the difference,” Hall of Fame defensive lineman Dan Hampton said when asked which player is better. “Briggs is more effective closer to the line of scrimmage, and Urlacher is more of a force away from the line of scrimmage. It’s an inverse effect, but that’s what makes it special. To have these two guys side by side is a luxury few have ever seen.
“In my 30 years of experience in the NFL, there have never been two linebackers that good in a 4-3 defense.”
Former Bears linebacking great Doug Buffone and longtime NFL personnel guru Gil Brandt believe what Briggs and Urlacher are doing is more unique given how the game has evolved.
While many ex-players don’t believe modern players measure up, Buffone says it’s more difficult to be a run-stopping linebacker today.
“The game has changed,” Buffone said. “Defenses have changed. When you’re talking about the middle linebacker, do you know how hard it is to take on a 310-pound guard with a 240-pound fullback behind him? It’s impossible. They say, ‘Well, you’ve got to take on the block.’ Well, you can take the blocks on, but it’s such a mismatch nowadays because these linemen are so damn big.
“Think about it: Back when I played these guys were going 265, 270 [pounds]. These guys are so damn big now, it’s hard.”
Brandt believes this is the Golden Age of Quarterbacks. A former vice president of player personnel for the Cowboys from 1960-89, Brandt says the accuracy of players such as Tom Brady, whom the Bears will face Sunday when the Patriots visit Soldier Field, makes it more difficult than ever for linebackers to defend the pass.
“It’s a much harder job to be a linebacker today because these quarterbacks are so accurate and good at what they do,” Brandt said. “The back-shoulder fade, the low-and-away ball, it’s totally unbelievable how skilled these guys are. I’m not sure how you improve your skill level as a linebacker to cope with what they’re doing. You can only get so good at running to the ball. You can have perfect recognition, and they can throw a back-shoulder fade or a low-and-away ball and it’s pretty darned hard to make that play as a linebacker.”
Brandt has followed Urlacher’s career since he was in high school in Lovington, N.M. He concedes that Urlacher is not as fast as he was when he came into the league but says he remains as effective because of his instincts and intelligence, which he believes the six-time Pro Bowl performer is not given enough credit for. He says Briggs’ gift is his burst and ability to use his shoulders to gain leverage and shed the blocks of bigger linemen. Both are sure tacklers, have vast experience in the cover-2 and are willing to forsake personal status to play team defense.
That they have played together for eight seasons and can anticipate where the other will be doesn’t hurt.
“We’re very comfortable, not from just being relaxed, but understanding where everyone’s going to fit, getting people aligned, making adjustments, because we understand the defense so well,” Briggs said. “Little things that can help the defense. Our confidence in our abilities is just sky-high.”
Although Urlacher couldn’t play weak-side linebacker as well as Briggs and Briggs wouldn’t be as dominant as Urlacher in the middle, the debate rages on: Urlacher or Briggs? Briggs or Urlacher?
“When I ask people who see the Bears a lot more than I do, they point to Briggs being ahead of Urlacher, but they’re both having outstanding years,” said longtime NFL general manager and current CBS analyst Charley Casserly. “Briggs has just been a little more productive and dynamic this year.”
Ask Urlacher who is better, and he will say Briggs. Briggs will point to Urlacher. While those are opinions, this is fact: Neither would be as good without the other.