The health of Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher's knee has been the topic of conversation for most of the preseason. Last week he had minor surgery on the knee, which he sprained in the season finale last year. There have also been reports of multiple surgeries this offseason that were never made public.
Both the Bears and Urlacher have said all along that he'll be ready to go for the regular season opener. But in reality, it's anyone's guess as to when, or even if, he'll return.
While Urlacher sits, Nick Roach will man the middle linebacker spot. Roach is a five-year veteran that his spent his entire career in Chicago's system. He was the starter last season on the strong side but will be asked to be the leader of this defense if Urlacher can't return on schedule.
Let's take a look at the film from the club's second preseason game against the Washington Redskins to see how Roach fared at the MIKE position.
-1st and 10. The Redskins run off-tackle directly at Roach. He steps up to fill but takes an inside angle. This allows Trent Williams to pin Roach inside. RB Alfred Morris has a big hole through which to run. He then runs over Lance Briggs and rumbles for a 21-yard gain.
LB Nick Roach
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire
-1st and 10. Washington lines up in a power-I formation. The Bears counter with eight men in the box. The play is an off-tackle run to the right. Roach tries to scrape and fill but G Adam Gettis gets his hands on him. When Morris cuts inside, Roach is unable to separate and he gets driven outside. The play goes for six yards.
-3rd and 23. Roach blitzes up the middle. QB Robert Griffin runs a draw play to RB Evan Royster. Roach sidesteps a block and has a shot at the runner in the backfield. Yet he fails to find the ball and Royster runs right past him. The play goes for 13 yards.
-2nd and 6. The Redskins run a stretch play left with zone blocking. Roach slides with the play and locks up with T Mauric Hurt. Roach keeps his arms extended and his eyes in the backfield. When Morris cuts inside, Roach just tosses Hurt to the side and makes the tackle. An outstanding play.
-3rd and 3. Roach blitzes the B gap. Royster steps up to block and Roach just slows down and locks arms with the running back, allowing Griffin to get the pass off easily. Roach must show better effort as a blitzer.
-1st and 10. Washington runs a stretch left. Roach slides in front of the play and sidesteps the block of Hurt. He then catches Morris in his chest and wrestles the ball carrier to the ground. The play goes for a 2-yard gain.
-2nd and 8. Toss left to Morris. Roach comes from the backside of the play and sprints to meet the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage. Yet Morris beats him to the point of attack and Roach can't bring him down. Still, Roach showed good speed even getting there.
-1st and 10. Griffin play fakes up the middle. Roach steps up but doesn't bite. He quickly turns and sprints into his deep middle zone. Griffin ends up getting sacked by Israel Idonije, resulting in a turnover. Roach didn't over-pursue on the play action and quickly got back in coverage.
-At the end of the first quarter, the Bears moved Roach to the strong side and inserted Blak Costanzo in the middle.
Overall, I was very impressed with Roach in coverage, which has always been his weak spot. He flew around his zone and was sticky in man sets. He has been working in the nickel package with the starters this offseasos and it appears to be paying off. This might give him a better chance against Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley, who torched Roach last season.
LB Nick Roach
Rob Grabowski/US Presswire
Against the run, Roach showed much better hand usage. On a number of plays, he was able to keep his arms extended and shed blockers, something he struggled with last season.
The last time the Bears lost Urlacher for an extended period was in 2009, when he missed 15 games with a wrist injury. At the time, Roach played on the strong side, with Hunter Hillenmeyer in the middle. The defense struggled with that lineup, as Hillenmeyer didn't possess the requisite speed and athleticism to play MIKE in Chicago's Cover 2.
Roach is a faster, more-athletic player than Hillenmeyer and he showed some of that ability against the Redskins. His diagnostic skills were very good, with only a few missed reads during his quarter and a half of play. He also demonstrated playmaking ability against both the pass and run. In coverage, he understands his role, and has the quickness to be effective in the intermediate and deep zones.
Roach plays with a lot of aggression but that cost him on a few plays in this game. Still, he appears to have a strong grasp of his MIKE duties, as well as the ability to track and tackle. No one is going to replace Urlacher but inserting Roach likely won't result in a drastic drop off in production.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.