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Managing the middle
Patrick Willis. Ray Lewis. London Fletcher. Now, Brian Urlacher and Willis again in a seven-day span.
This is the lineup of formidable middle linebackers who Michael Robinson has been butting his head against, and will continue to take on, as the Seahawks make their run at achieving a winning record in Sunday’s game against Urlacher and the Bears in Chicago and their Christmas Eve home finale next Saturday against Willis and the San Francisco 49ers.
What did a former college quarterback – and a very productive one, at that – do to deserve all of this?
“I’ve never had to do this type of stuff before, playing quarterback and running back,” Robinson said. “The biggest change is the hitting every day. Knowing who to block wasn’t hard. It was just the fact of the repetitions of actually doing it.
“The more reps you get, the better you get at it.”
The Seahawks have shoved their running game in a higher gear, rushing for 100-plus yards in six consecutive games for the first time since 2002-03 after averaging 77.7 and topping 100 twice in the first seven games.
No one has benefitted more from Robinson’s efforts, or is a bigger fan of them, than Marshawn Lynch. The Seahawks’ Skittle-back has a league-high 701 rushing yards in the past six games and already has a career-high 10 touchdowns. He needs 31 yards against the Bears to become the Seahawks’ first 1,000-yard rusher since Shaun Alexander in 2005.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of him,” Lynch said of Robinson, “and how thankful I am for what he does.”
Sunday, Robinson will doing his thing against Urlacher, who has a way of doing his thing regardless of what offenses come up with to try and contain him.
“He’s a very, very difficult guy to block,” Robinson said, with Urlacher’s 1,556 career tackles as proof. “He’s very, very smart. He knows where the ball carrier wants to go and he’s all about the ball. He doesn’t like dealing with lead blockers, and the guys in front of him make it difficult for you to get on him, too.
“So I’ve definitely got to put my thinking hat on this week and try to be where he is.”
But blocking for Lynch also involves dealing with his “Beast Mode” style, which is all pumping feet, churning legs and a demented will to gain yards even when they’re not there. Robinson likens it to “a dog chasing you.”
A large, and possibly rabid dog.
“Being in front of the guy, you’d better get going because if not you’ll be one of the guys falling off him,” Robinson said. “I love it. I love the fact that defenses have to prepare all week to try to stop us, stop him. Even when you have him wrapped up, you’ve got to actually tackle him. … The power he has on one leg is just something like I’ve never seen before.
“His demeanor, his physicality, brings an extra edge to this team.”
Because Robinson played QB at Penn State, where he was Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year as a senior in 2005, he has made himself into fullback since joining the 49ers as a fourth-round draft choice in 2006. The transformation has been ramped up since he joined the Seahawks last season, and heightened even more since assistant head coach/offensive line coach Tom Cable arrived this season. And, no, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Or Robinson is making it look.
Justin Griffith knows, because he always was a fullback – at Mississippi State and for eight seasons in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons (2003-06), Oakland Raiders (2007-08), Seahawks (2009) and Houston Texans (2010).
Griffith is now a coaching intern with the Seahawks, and Robinson credits him along with running backs coach Sherman Smith with continuing to help him in his development.
“Mike-Rob is what they would call a ’tweener; you’re big enough to be a fullback but small enough to be a tailback,” Griffith said. “You’re an effective blocker, but not a bruising blocker, so you have to rely on your technique and how you do things.
“Mike has done a good job of correcting and improving his technique. He’s been a football player, and he’s an athlete. If you’re an athlete, you can teach yourself how to do anything. And now that he’s teaching himself how to play the position he’s becoming a lot better.”
Even though those lessons for a 6-foot-1, 223-pounder like Robinson come with some hard knocks – like the 6-4, 258-pound Urlacher; the 6-1, 240-pound Willis; 6-1, 250-pound Lewis, who plays for the Ravens; and the 5-10, 245-pound Fletcher, who plays for the Redskins. They have 25 Pro Bowl selections between them, not to mention more than 5,000 career tackles.
“It’s a thankless task,” said Griffith, who had his share of run-ins with these four, as well. “It’s one of those things were fullbacks all across the league you wake up every day and you have to enjoy playing this position.
“You don’t get any fame or glory from it. It’s just that you know those fullbacks are the most reliable guys on the field.” Read