Right now, there are 90 players on the Chicago Bears roster. Two of them wear jersey number 53: rookie center P.J. Lonergan and first-year linebacker Jerry Franklin. At a recent practice, neither of the fifty-threes got very much on-field work, substituting occasionally for the third-team and in specific formations, but mostly standing and watching, like the spectators on the bleachers. Things can change between now and cut-down day on August 31, but it appears that Lonergan and Franklin will be released before the regular season opener on September 8. There is a chance one or both could be signed to the practice squad, keeping a number 53 on the regular season roster. But it’s not certain.
What is clear is that for the first time since the Clinton Administration, there will be no Bear who wears number 54 on their jersey. The literal and figurative center of the team’s defense for the past 13 seasons, Brian Urlacher, retired this offseason, following an ugly breakup with the organization that no longer wanted his services. With a second-year general manager, first-year head coach and an overall emphasis on getting younger across the depth chart, the Bears felt they would be better off in 2013 and beyond without the face of the franchise for the past decade-plus. So Urlacher begrudgingly walked away. What he left behind is much more than a Hall of Fame legacy.
“Brian’s a tall guy, he casts a long shadow,” said new Bears linebacker James Anderson.
Urlacher’s silhouette stretches well past the standard middle linebacker spot, because Urlacher wasn’t just a standard middle linebacker. On the field, he did things no one else in the league could do, as his size and speed allowed him to cover so much of the field at an elite level. Off the field, he was the voice and personality of a group that acted with a confidence and swagger usually associated with the league’s premier scoring teams, not defenses. All of that is gone now, along with the coach and coordinator who implemented the scheme that played a large role in making the defense so good.
Yet talk to the new crop of Bears linebackers, and they are confident that the first season without number 54 still can be a successful one. Nobody can do all the things that Urlacher did, but the sum of the team’s new parts should be able to replace the one departed whole. There’s a lot of changing pieces, both in the lineup and on the coaching staff, but the new combinations believes there won’t be any drop-off.
Part of that optimism is because much of the old system that produced so much success has remained in place. The other part is because the new pieces in the lineup are seen, in many respects, as upgrades.
“(We) kept the same defense from what we’ve had years before, and a couple of the same coaches on the staff,” said veteran Blake Costanzo, one of few linebackers who return from last year’s team. “So having all those things in there, and we have some great guys that they brought in, some good veterans that pick up everything quick.”
Leading the linebackers into the post-Urlacher era is Mel Tucker, the new, 41-year old defensive coordinator. Tucker has extensive coaching experience for somebody so young, and just months into his tenure in Chicago, he’s already made believers out of his players.
“Mel is a perfect fit for this defense,” Anderson said, citing that the unit will attempt to do what the Bears have always done on that side of the ball: limit points and force turnovers. Tucker made the wise choice early on to keep the same terminology for his playbook that Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli used in years past. That means less transition for returning players who were part of a defense that ranked fifth in the NFL yards allowed, third in points allowed and first in takeaways in 2012.
Tucker also made the wise choice of handing the on-field-play-calling reigns over to the team’s best linebacker, Lance Briggs. Costanzo said the other defenders call Briggs ‘Black Lach’ because of his immediate comfort in running the “D” a la Urlacher, and little to no setbacks are expected given the seven-time Pro Bowlers knowledge of the scheme. Because he will be working alongside four ‘backers this season who weren’t on the Chicago roster last season (and two of which are rookies), Briggs’ ability to align the defense correctly and know what calls to make will be of vital importance.
“Lance is really valuable,” said Khaseem Greene, a fourth-round pick in April’s draft. “It’s always important to have veteran leadership in the locker room, and especially in your meeting room, so it has been great.” Greene is slated to back up Briggs at weak-side linebacker, but the rookie said he is learning the calls and assignments for all three linebacker positions just in case he is asked to change positions.
The rookie with the most eyes on him, early in camp, is second-round pick Jon Bostic. He must walk right through Urlacher’s shadow, as he would be the team’s starting middle linebacker if the season started today. Bostic has been impressive thus far, showing the sideline-to-sideline agility that the team has come to expect from the position. Veteran D.J. Williams – signed in free agency from the Broncos – also will be part of the mix at that position, but he is currently on the sideline because of a calf strain suffered early in camp.
Anderson, the other veteran arrival to the roster, mans the strong-side, taking over for free agent departure Nick Roach. Combined, the Bears believe that under Tucker’s watch, they have the proper mix of youth and experience at the three linebacker spots to have that unit remain one of their strengths in the post-54 era.
“I don’t think there’s pressure on us to replace Brian,” Anderson said. “I think there’s pressure on us because there’s a level of excellence this Bears defense has exuded the last five or ten years. That’s a standard that is very high that we have to keep up with.”