While it was fashionable and convenient to denigrate Brian Urlacher’s performance over his last couple Bears seasons, the reality was that while he was not the “54” of 2005-2006, he was still among the better true middle linebackers in the NFL, particularly in pass coverage where ProFootballFocus.com graded him among the best at his position in that area.
Urlacher has been gone since week 12 last season and the issue facing the Bears is whether or not their middle is secure in an NFL that has turned increasingly toward using two tight ends and their ability to work the middle of the field.
Outside linebackers James Anderson and Lance Briggs stayed on the field in nickel this preseason. Rookie Jon Bostic was being pulled when opponents went to a third wide receiver and D.J. Williams, expected to start after missing all of preseason with a calf injury, will not keep up the Urlacher tradition of staying in vs. passing-personnel packages.
The problem that the Cincinnati Bengals present is that they can force the Bears to leave a middle linebacker on the field by staying with two pass-catching tight ends: Jermaine Gresham, who caught 64 passes in 2012 and has gone to two Pro Bowls in his four NFL seasons; and Tyler Eifert, taken by the Bengals one pick after the Bears selected guard Kyle Long in the 2013 first round.
“It’s challenging because they can move people around and create space, should it be in regular personnel, decisions will have to be made whether we go nickel or stay regular. And that’s pretty universal throughout the league,” said coach Marc Trestman. “Everybody’s playing some form of two-tight end sets.
“And the reason why they are, particularly when they have athletic tight ends like the two that they have, Gresham and Tyler Eifert, it makes it a bit more difficult certainly to defend the run and the pass because you have to do both in a different way than you do when you have three wideouts on the field.”
The Bengals started Gresham and Eifert together in the first two preseason games before holding Eifert out of the last two with a minor forearm injury.
The preseason may also have offered a glimpse of another looming problem for Bears linebackers.
The Bengals used their No. 2 pick this year on running back Giovani Bernard out of North Carolina. Bernard caught seven passes in preseason.
“They have skill guys that can wreck the game,” said defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. “They have runners that run hard and get yards after contact. They do what they do and they do it well.”