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When looking for the keys to the respective defenses in Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game between the Seahawks and Bears in Chicago, look first to the middle.
That’s where Lofa Tatupu and Brian Urlacher not only roam, but make sure that everyone else is in his proper place.
These middle linebackers – one prototypical, the other atypical – are the heart, soul and brains of the units that will go along toward determining which team advances to the NFC Championship game next week.
“They’re both great linebackers,” Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson said. “They understand the defenses they play in, and what the defensive coordinators want from not only them but everyone else on the field.
The Seahawks’ Lofa Tatupu and the Bears’ Brian Urlacher are the hearts, souls and brains of their respective defenses. Here’s a comparison of the Pro Bowl pair heading into Sunday’s playoff game at Soldier Field:
*-- Does not include the 2009 season, when injuries limited Tatupu to five games and Urlacher to one.
“That might be the most impressive aspects of their games.”
He should know. Robinson has had his share of run-ins with both, while playing for the Seahawks this season and the San Francisco 49ers the previous four seasons.
Urlacher is a strapping 6-foot-4, 258-pounder who has been patrolling the middle of the Bears defense since they selected him in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft. He posted 100-plus tackles this season for the 10th time in his career, and missed a perfect “11” because he dislocated his right wrist in the opener last season and was placed on injured reserve.
He has been to the Pro Bowl seven times, was voted NFL defensive player of the year in 2005 and named to the league’s team of the decade for 2000s.
“He’s perfect,” is the way Seahawks coach Pete Carroll summed up Urlacher this week. “You just don’t find guys with defensive-back skills that are as big as he is and can run so fast. He’s mastered how to play the defense – the Tampa-2 defense; it’s called the Chicago-2, for their sake – with a linebacker that can play deep middle and hit you in the back if you don’t have a running game.
“It’s amazing that he can do it so well. They’re great at it, and he’s a big factor in it because that position calls for him to do so many things that are challenging. And he’s the best.”
Just as Tatupu is exactly what Carroll needs in the middle of his defense. Carroll first had Tatupu when both were at USC, and Tatupu is now in Seattle – in large part – because of the way Carroll sold the undersized linebacker at the Trojans’ Pro Day work in 2005.
The Seahawks not only selected Tatupu in the second round of the draft that year, they traded up to insure getting him after using eight starters at the pivotal position the previous seven seasons. Tatupu has been their starter from Day One, except for last season when hamstring and pectoral injuries ended his season after only five games.
“He adds more than most guys because he helps the people around him play well,” Carroll has said on several occasions since being reunited with Tatupu last January. “It’s not just his play, it’s the way he communicates, it’s his savvy, it’s his ability to identify situations and take advantage of the coaching and the game plan and all that.
“He’s just uniquely qualified and so we feel much more together when he’s out there just because of what he brings.”
Even if the 6-foot, 250-pound Tatupu doesn’t look the part. But he plays big, and makes big plays. He is the first player in franchise history to lead the team in tackles in four consecutive seasons (2005-08) and Tatupu played in the Pro Bowl after each of his first three seasons.
“He plays hard, man,” Urlacher said this week when asked about his counterpart. “He’s a smart player. I remember when he first came in the league, watching him. He’s always tapping D-linemen, telling them where to go, changing the defense and he plays fast.
“He plays fast, he plays smart and he gets to the football – makes a lot of plays, too.”
This week, however, Tatupu did not practice until Friday because of the concussion he got in last week’s stunning upset of the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. Tatupu was dinged making – what else – a big play. He stopped running back Julius Jones for no gain on a fourth-and-1 play.
“I have a lot of respect for Lofa,” Urlacher said.
So does Robinson, who also knows just how good Urlacher is – and just how much both can alter the course of a game.
“Urlacher’s a little bigger guy, so he definitely from that aspect of it is a little harder to block,” Robinson said. “Lofa is going to come downhill, and as soon as he sees it he’s going to come get it.”
Each gets his tackles – a lot of them – in a different way.
“Urlacher plays within the scheme of their defense very very well,” Robinson said. “He’s one of the best linebacker I’ve seen, as far as playing the inside zone run. He kind of messes with the running back. Because all great runners, they don’t read the first level. They read the second level and they’re trying to move the second level.
“Urlacher does a great job of playing tricks with the back. You think he’s folding over the top, and then he shoots back. He’s a great great cerebral guy when it comes to playing that position.”
Tatupu also uses his football smarts to sniff out plays as they’re developing, or even sooner.
“When we played against Lofa in San Francisco, it’s uncanny how he understands what the defensive coordinator wants and how he’s able to figure out what the offense is trying to do on any given play,” Robinson said. “Whenever we played the Seahawks, Lofa definitely was a guy we had to block.”