Bears LB depth still a question mark

With Brian Urlacher's well-publicized knee ailment, and Dom DeCicco going down with a groin injury, players like Blake Costanzo and J.T. Thomas have been called on to step up.

The leading tackler for the Chicago Bears in the team's second preseason game was LB Blake Costanzo. Costanzo racked up six tackles playing at middle linebacker with both the first and second team.

Costanzo has never started an NFL game at linebacker and was signed by the Bears this offseason for his outstanding play on special teams. Yet there he was against the Washington Redskins, lining up next to starters Nick Roach and Geno Hayes.

Heading into training camp, Chicago's coaches did not envision a scenario where Costanzo would be called upon to produce as a linebacker. Brian Urlacher is a future Hall of Famer, yet his knee injury has kept him out almost the entire offseason. His backup is Roach, who is typically the starter on the strong side. The third option at middle linebacker was Dom DeCicco, yet he's on the shelf with a groin injury.

As a result, Costanzo was bumped up the depth chart. He looked very good on the field, showing great speed and an ability to make plays sideline to sideline. He also demonstrated fearlessness in taking on blockers at the point of attack.

"Everywhere I've been I've been mostly a special-teams guy but I had to know the defense and stay prepared," Costanzo said. "That's what our coaches prepare us to do, come out here and work hard and when you get an opportunity, make the most of it."


LB J.T. Thomas
Scott Cunningham/Getty

Costonzo certainly did that, leading the team in both tackles and tackles for a loss (2). He even showed some agility in coverage.

"Whatever I can do to help the team win, whether that be as a backup, or filling a role if there's some injuries, just go out there and play football," he said.

While Costanzo was the talk of the second preseason matchup, J.T. Thomas stood out in the first game. The club drafted Thomas in the sixth round last year. He struggled early in camp due to the lockout and ended up in injured reserve before the start of the season.

"Having an actual spring was great for me," Thomas told Bear Report. "I was part of that rookie class that was effected by the CBA. But it's just been great being in OTAs and rolling into the preseason. I'm learning more every day and I feel like I'm getting better every day."

His seven tackles against the Denver Broncos were the most on the roster. He also deflected a pass, a good sign for a player that has struggled in coverage so far in the NFL. Against the run, Thomas has shown a lot of aggression and solid tackling.

"The rest of the defense has been putting me in a position to make the plays that I can, and I've been making the ones that I'm supposed to make," said Thomas. "Just staying true to the things that we're supposed to be doing: reading keys and trying to play as fast as possible."

With no set return date for either Urlacher or DeCicco, all of the sudden Thomas has a real shot at making the roster as the team's sixth linebacker. Still, the second-year player has a long way to go before he can be counted on as a defensive player.

"I have so much more to learn," said Thomas. "The older guys know it like the back of their hands. For us younger guys, there's still things that we're learning every day. I'm so far away from where I ultimately want to be one day, it's not even funny. We're learning stuff every day. The more we learn, the faster we play, the better players we are."

Like any player fighting for a spot on an NFL roster, Thomas realizes special teams is his best shot at making the club, which makes these next two preseason games critical for him.

"Especially for guys like me, it's huge. Special teams, I still want to make sure I'm making an impact on special teams more than anything," he said. "I've really been concentrating a lot more on special teams, even more than I have been on defense, because I know that's where I'll help the team the most. I've just been trying to get things down pat and show coach Toub that I can be trustworthy and they can depend on me."

Thomas wears number 97. Watch for him tomorrow night. If he stands out on film, he could be a regular member of the Bears' roster in 2012.

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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.

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