Editor’s note: As the Bears prepare for their season-opener against the Lions at Soldier Field on Sunday, ESPNChicago.com breaks down the roster by position. He takes a look at the linebackers in his third installment.
Even without the services of six-time Pro Bowl standout Brian Urlacher, linebacker turned out to be the Bears’ top positional unit in 2009.
Lance Briggs registered 147 tackles en route to his fifth straight Pro Bowl selection, while backups Hunter Hillenmeyer and Nick Roach filled in admirably for the injured Urlacher and Pisa Tinoisamoa. Subbing for Urlacher at middle linebacker for the final 10 games, Hillenmeyer posted career highs in tackles (105) and forced fumbles (4). Roach, who saw time at both middle and strong side linebacker, tied for the team lead with 10 tackles for lost yardage. Injuries limited Tinoisamoa to just two games last season, but the eight-year veteran stayed healthy this summer, and is slated to open the 2010 regular season in the starting lineup.
Meanwhile, Urlacher (left calf) and Briggs (ankle) each missed time in the preseason, but both are expected to return when the Bears open the regular season against Detroit. Former Jacksonville linebacker Brian Iwuh, who was signed in the offseason, rounds out a group heavy on talent and experience, even after saying goodbye to Jamar Williams (traded to Carolina) and Tim Shaw (cut last Saturday). Although Roach, Iwuh and Hillenmeyer are currently slotted in backup roles, the three will be counted on to contribute for Dave Toub on special teams, one of the main strengths of Iwuh, who tallied 61 special-teams tackles over four years with the Jaguars.
Everybody stays healthy. Urlacher regains his old form, and dominates from the middle linebacker spot, while Briggs makes his sixth-consecutive Pro Bowl. Tinoisamoa resembles the player he was in St. Louis, where made 661 tackles in six seasons. Roach, Iwuh, and Hillenmeyer are solid on special teams, and if called upon, pick up the slack if one of the front-line players gets hurt.
Everybody gets hurt. Slowed by a slew of recent injuries, Urlacher shows his age and is unable to be a difference maker. Briggs finally begins to break down, Tinoisamoa can’t stay on the field, and the backups are once again forced to start for the bulk of the year. Just like in 2009, this is one of the few positions with enough talent to withstand injuries. But there is always a trickle-down effect when first-team guys miss time. Not only would removing Roach or Iwuh, in particular, from their duties on special teams hurt the team, it’s unfair to expect reserves to perform at the Pro Bowl level of players such as Urlacher and Briggs.