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Taking center stage

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

MIAMI – Brian Urlacher's eyes dart side-to-side quickly. He speaks almost faster than his eyes move, which is nearly impossible.

He is focused, intense and ready.

At that point, the Chicago Bears had only been in town for three days, but Urlacher might have already set an unofficial record for answering the most questions in a Super Bowl week.

The most important question Urlacher wants to answer is whether he and the Bears can handle the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday in Super Bowl XLI at Dolphin Stadium. Without question, Urlacher is going to be the key to whatever the Bears hope to accomplish.

Urlacher is more than simply the latest in Chicago's middle linebacker legacy, the heir to the position made famous by Dick Butkus and played at a similarly outstanding level by Mike Singletary. He also could become the latest in a series of linebackers who have turned the Super Bowl into their personal showcase. From Derrick Brooks to Ray Lewis to Jack Lambert, the Super Bowl has had a stunning number of great performances from linebackers.

"I'm not thinking about making it a showcase, I just want to win the game," Urlacher said. "If that happens, great. But the reason it would happen is because of the people I have around me."

One such performer is outside linebacker Lance Briggs, who like Urlacher has earned a trip to the Pro Bowl this season. However, the onus – at least perception-wise – mostly falls on Urlacher to monitor and rattle Colts superstar quarterback Peyton Manning.

"My thing is just about being prepared," Urlacher said. "I can't worry about all the little things that Manning is going to do at the line. I just read the keys, react and play fast."

That's a generous view by Urlacher, who followed his 2005 Defensive Player of the Year performance with a similarly outstanding year. In fact, it may have been subtly better.

"What I saw with Urlacher was him playing better and better after they lost a couple of key guys around him," Minnesota coach Brad Childress said. "They lost [defensive tackle] Tommie Harris and they lost [strong safety] Mike Brown. When you do that, most players are going to struggle, even great ones. Urlacher kept going and he kept their defense going."

As a team, the Bears struggled defensively in the first five games (including in the playoffs against the Seattle Seahawks) following Harris' season-ending left hamstring injury. They surrendered a combined 129 points in those five contests after giving up just 140 in the first 12 games – the main culprit being a failing pass rush that allowed opponents to be more effective in the air. But despite giving up 375 total yards in the NFC title game against the New Orleans Saints, the Bears limited their scoring by forcing turnovers.

Many of the forced turnovers (translation: big plays) can be traced back to Urlacher, who was tied for third on the team in both interceptions (three) and pass deflections (nine).

"I'll just say I've been around some good linebackers, some great linebackers, Derrick Brooks being one of them as an outside linebacker," Chicago coach Lovie Smith said. "But Brian Urlacher as an inside linebacker has it all. He's one of the best guys you'll ever meet, one of the best superstars you'll ever get a chance to be around and you can't find anyone with more talent than him … you just go through it all. He's a coach on the field. He knows our defense in and out. He is a perfect teammate. When do you want me to stop?"

Urlacher is the main artery of the Bears defense, the guy who roams up and down the middle of the field, running down plays everywhere with his unique combination of height (6-foot-4), weight (258 pounds) and speed.

"You look at a guy that tall who runs down the field with that speed and has those kinds of instincts, it's a pretty amazing combination," said Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark, who figures to see Urlacher a time or two in coverage.

"You just don't get guys like that. You see linebackers who are fast, but they don't have the instincts, they don't react in coverage like he does. You have guys who are big and strong and play the run great, but they can't run at all and they don't have the height to get into the passing lanes and break anything up. He's a challenge. You're going to have to run your best route if you're going to beat him."

Urlacher is one of the few middle linebackers in the NFL who regularly stays in games in passing downs.

"He's not one of those squatty-body guys out there, you have to find him in coverage because there's no easy way to beat him," Manning said. "He makes that window between the linebackers and the safeties a lot smaller … If you're going to handle their defense, you have to find an answer for him."

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