Like so many Urlacher admirers, Tony Dungy is struggling for words to explain the Big Bear. Typical coach-speak won’t do when you’re describing a guy who, at 23, seems to have mastered one of the most difficult positions in the game. “He’s got something that’s hard to put your finger on,” says the Bucs coach. “But you know it when you see it.”
For confirmation, peep the video from the Bears’ 31-3 victory over the Falcons back in October. In the second quarter, Urlacher, in a three-deep zone coverage, dropped to the middle of the field. Well, he didn’t just drop -- taking away the hook route like they drew it up -- he dropped with purpose, sprinting 15 yards to his spot. He located all three Atlanta receivers, then whipped his body around to catch QB Chris Chandler’s eyes. Chandler clearly wanted WR Shawn Jefferson on a deep cross. So on the QB’s release, Urlacher exploded left and made the pick, looking more like Charles Woodson than Ray Lewis.
Bears RB Leon Johnson is privy to this on the regular. “He’ll have some interceptions in practice,” Johnson says, “and I’ll be like, ‘That’s a middle linebacker catching the ball.’ He’s got hands like a DB.” Moves like one, too. On the pick against Atlanta, Urlacher opened his hips, and caught the ball, midstride. “Just makes you say, ‘Wow,’” says Johnson.
The pick against the Falcons wasn’t even Urlacher’s best play of the day. He pulled off two in the fourth quarter that were even more highlight-ready. First, Urlacher blitzed -- radical for an MLB because most have neither the speed nor the swerve to rush the passer -- and sacked Michael Vick. Two minutes later, he snatched up a Vick fumble and took it to the house, 90 yards away. “He’s so fast, he can be in on every play,” says Johnson. “And he’s so athletic.” In fact, Dungy says Urlacher is the next great backer because he gives coaches so many options -- as a blitzer, as a run-stuffer or as a cover guy. “He could play a lot of positions and play them well,” says Dungy. “We wanted to draft him and play him at free safety. I thought he’d be a Pro Bowler there.”
And then Dungy finally finds the words to define what’s so hard to define about Urlacher: “As the kids say today, he can ball.”
This article appears in the December 24 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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