Defensive Issue: Best in the Biz?

While Hunter Hillenmeyer was never regarded as anything more than an adequate linebacker, Pisa Tinoisamoa led the Rams in tackles almost every year. Will his addition give the Chicago Bears the best linebacking corps in the NFL this season? In Part III of a five-part series, we attack the LBs.

The Skinny
Everybody knows that Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs form a devastating one-two punch at middle and weak-side linebacker, respectively, but it was over on the strong side where the Monsters of the Midway had trouble in 2008.

General manager Jerry Angelo hopes to have finally plugged that hole by signing free agent Pisa Tinoisamoa, fresh off leading the Rams in tackles this past season. Bears head coach Lovie Smith was his defensive coordinator in St. Louis when Tinoisamoa was a rookie in 2003, so there is an element of familiarity between player and scheme that has fans excited. Nick Roach has the ability to be a good one down the road and Hunter Hillenmeyer was a solid contributor for many years, but now Roach has been relegated back to special-teams duties and Hillenmeyer could very well end up on the cutting-room floor before long.

If Tinoisamoa can re-adjust to the strong-side position and accept a third-banana role behind Urlacher and Briggs, this could be one of the premier linebacking groups in the league this season.

Reasons to be Optimistic
Even though Urlacher is the one still raking in big money from endorsements and the like off the field, Briggs is the top linebacker in the Windy City.

Fresh off his fourth straight Pro Bowl, Briggs continues to be one of the best open-field tacklers in the NFL and may look to assume more of a leadership role with Mike Brown in Kansas City. Urlacher hasn't been invited to Hawaii since 2006, but he's still a terrific defender and covers the deep third of the field as well as any middle linebacker in the game – No. 54 has come up with multiple interceptions in each of the last three years. Tinoisamoa left some money on the table to sign with the Bears, and he's on record saying he's already made plenty of coin in football and only interested in playing for a winner again.


Briggs led the Bears with 110 tackles last year.
Warren Wimmer Photography

And should any of the three succumb to injury at any point in the 2009 schedule, fourth-year pro Jamar Williams is good enough to start for most teams and well versed at all three spots.

Causes for Concern
While Baltimore's Ray Lewis has enjoyed a renaissance in his career and appears to be at the top of the heap again at 34 years old, Urlacher might not be capable of a similar rejuvenation at 31.

It's simply a fact that he's not the player he was back in 2005 when he was the Defensive Player of the Year, as the 79 solo tackles he registered last year were the fewest of his career – aside from '04, when he missed seven games because of a hamstring problem. He and Briggs are both reliable tacklers when operating in space, but both have difficulty shedding blocks from time to time and neither is especially adept at rushing the passer. Tinoisamoa did record 3.0 sacks last season, the most he's ever had, although that's far from an impressive total.

New defensive line coach Rod Marinelli better get more out of the ends and tackles in 2009, or else the linebackers will have too big of a burden for them to handle.

CONCLUSION
If Urlacher is no longer playing like a surefire Hall of Famer in the middle, then it's time to flank him with more talent at the two outside positions. The Midway Monsters have done just that, adding a potential playmaker in Tinoisamoa instead of simply scraping by with Roach or Hillenmeyer. Briggs should be entering the prime of his career, but he needs to pick off more passes, force more fumbles, and get more sacks if he wants to transform from annual Pro Bowler to possible Canton enshrinee.

Overall, there is a lot to like here, especially if Urlacher can discover the same fountain of youth Lewis did with the Ravens.


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John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.


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