Urlacher could do it all, and then some

Middle linebacker forced foes to alter plans because they couldn't run through him or pass over him

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Chicago Tribune sports columnist Dan Pompei discusses the decision of Brian Urlacher to retire from the NFL. (Posted on: May 22, 2013)

Brian Urlacher revolutionized the middle linebacker position in the NFL.

Yeah, he was that good, that rare an athlete. He was a special talent with a uncommon combination of size and speed. At 6 foot 4 and 250-plus pounds Urlacher had the footwork and change-of-direction skills of a defensive back.

Run and hit. Track the ball. Get to the quarterback. Then do it again the next Sunday for more than a decade in the toughest league going.

Urlacher played in the middle of the 4-3 front for both Dick Jauron and Lovie Smith, but I could see him with his hand on the ground as a rush end or as an outside linebacker in the 3-4. Heck, you even could align him as some sort of "rover" in a creative scheme if you really wanted.

Even going back to last year — Urlacher's 13th as a pro — when a bum knee, ailing hamstring and father time wore down his body, there were still glimpses of the skill set that once took over the NFL.

Sure, he didn't have the same burst to the ball or the lateral ability that could control the front seven of the defense with his pursuit to the sidelines. But his mere presence in the middle of the Cover-2 scheme played a role in the Bears' defensive success when he was on the field.

You see, the Bears didn't play a two-deep coverage with Urlacher under Smith. Nah. With No. 54 in the middle of the field, they played a three-deep coverage because of his range and ability to run.

Opposing offenses tried to get creative over the years by aligning speed on the inside to try to break the zone look. But with Urlacher there, the ball would just have to go underneath — check it down to the flat and try again next time.

I came into the league in the same draft as Urlacher in 2000 and remember watching his growth in the film room from athlete, to linebacker to one of the best in the NFL.

You had the Bears on the schedule? Then you had to deal with Urlacher. This was his team, his city. And everyone knew it.

Urlacher was the topic of discussion on the practice field, in the lunchroom at the facility or at a post-practice weight room session. It didn't matter. When you had to face the Bears, he was the one player you constantly talked about.

Quarterbacks I played with knew they had to adjust their own game plan or script. You couldn't just toss the ball down the middle of the field or turn a blind eye to where Urlacher was in his pre-snap alignment.

As a linebacker that could run with a wide receiver or put a helmet under the chin of the quarterback, Urlacher forced the opposition to change the way they approached the Bears.

I know the numbers: 1,200-plus tackles, 411/2 sacks and 22 interceptions. That's Hall of Fame stuff when you add in the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2000, the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2005 and the eight — yes, eight — Pro Bowl nods.

And let's not forget just how tough Urlacher was. To play 13 years in the NFL at a violent position that beats you down, he answered the call repeatedly and won the respect of players and coaches across the NFL.

That's a big part of defining Urlacher's career from my perspective.

Maybe Urlacher's phone would have started to ring come August when injuries force depth charts to be adjusted. And maybe he had another 100 tackles left in that beat-up body of his.

But let's not worry about that anymore. Come 2018, I expect both Urlacher and former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis to walk into the Canton, Ohio, shrine together as two of the greatest players at their position. That's where they belong.

And from one former player to another, I would tell Brian Urlacher that I enjoyed watching him play the game. A true pro on the field who loved to compete.

Man, he was special.

Twitter @MattBowen41

Special contributor Matt Bowen, who played at Glenbard West and Iowa, spent seven seasons in the NFL as a strong safety.

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