Bears could be better with new linebackers

March, 27, 2013
3/27/13
8:30
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James Anderson and D.J. WilliamsAP PhotoThe Bears figure to be more athletic at linebacker with the additions of James Anderson and D.J. Williams.
Naturally, nostalgia and familiarity lead to death-blow thinking when pondering the face of the Chicago Bears' new linebacking corps sans Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach.

But a strong debate can be made that new additions D.J. Williams and James Anderson might represent a considerable upgrade at the position.

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Will the Bears be better with D.J. Williams and James Anderson at LB?

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A free agent, Roach bolted Chicago for the Oakland Raiders on March 15. Less than a week later, the Bears announced March 20 that they couldn't come to an agreement with Urlacher, the face of the defense for 13 years. In a statement, general manager Phil Emery said "both sides decided to move forward."

The Bears wasted little time in doing so. Two days after the Urlacher announcement, the Bears signed Williams, a nine-year veteran. Two days later, the club signed seven-year vet Anderson, giving it a trio of starting linebackers -- with Williams and perennial Pro Bowler Lance Briggs also in the mix -- that possesses experience, and likely more athleticism than the group that featured Roach and Urlacher alongside Briggs over the years.

The latest moves might also signify a shift away from the Tampa 2 scheme the club had run over the years to a more traditional 4-3 front, which might actually diminish Urlacher's value to the Bears. New defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said the team plans to keep the defense close to the same as it's been in the past. But during Tucker's tenure in Jacksonville, the Jaguars indeed played a 4-3 front (they experimented with some 3-4 early on before tossing it), but utilized some 3-4 philosophies with regard to how linebackers leveraged blocks.

Anderson and Williams, who has experience playing in a 4-3 and 3-4 front, seem well suited to serve as the "run-and-hit" type of linebackers Tucker likes to utilize in his defenses. They also add a pass-rushing element the Bears didn't possess before with Urlacher and Roach.

Over the past three years, Urlacher and Roach combined for 5.5 sacks, while Williams and Anderson came together for 15.5 sacks over the same span. It's worth noting that under former coach Lovie Smith, the Bears didn't utilize linebackers extensively to blitz. But it's also worth it to mention that Williams and Anderson produced 10 more sacks than Urlacher and Roach over the past three years despite playing in a combined eight fewer games.

Williams played in just seven games in 2012 as a result of multiple suspensions, but produced 10.5 sacks in 2010 and 2011, in addition to 164 tackles.

"First of all, my off-the-field issues, they actually happened in 2010," Williams told the "The Jarrett Payton Show" on Monday. "But it was just that I tried to fight them. So everything got pushed back to 2010, and 2013 and kind of overlapped. It's all about thinking before you act, and just like you do in a game, have a game plan in your outside life. I've learned my lessons, and I feel like it's all behind me."

If that's truly the case, Williams could turn out to be a bargain-priced upgrade as a replacement for Urlacher, who at some point likely will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Individually, Williams might not ever compare to Urlacher. But collectively, the additions of Williams and Anderson appear at this point to be an upgrade over Urlacher and Roach, which is not to discount their contributions over the years.

According to the team's statistics, Urlacher and Roach combined for 525 tackles from 2010-12, in addition to five interceptions, six forced fumbles, and eight fumble recoveries. According to stats from Pro Football Reference, however, Urlacher and Roach combined for 302 stops over that span.

Even with Williams playing just seven games last season, he and Anderson posted 106 more tackles than Urlacher and Roach from 2010-12. The expected replacement for Roach at strong side linebacker next season, Anderson posted back-to-back 98-tackle seasons in 2010 and 2011, before injuries limited him to 38 tackle last season.

Roach, meanwhile, made a combined 66 tackles over the past three seasons.

So while the loss of Urlacher still stings for some, the team actually may have gotten better at the linebacker position with the additions of Williams and Anderson. The club got a little younger and more athletic in the middle with Williams, 30, and more productive and explosive in Anderson.

But at this point, that's only on paper. We still have to wait awhile before this is actually proven.

Michael C. Wright

ESPN Chicago Bears reporter

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