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SportsMonday: Here Comes Vick

The revival of the Bear defense this year certainly owes plenty to the signing of Julius Peppers, although I thought some of Jerry Angelo's ravings about the defensive end this past week were clearly over the top, and self-serving. After all he signed the guy. If Peppers plays well, Jerry looks good.

Despite the fact that Peppers hadn't piled up the sacks until grabbing three on Thursday night against the Dolphins, it doesn't take microscopic analysis to figure out that the highest paid player in the league often does great things even when he isn't tackling the quarterback. He is a heck of a talent who is doing as much as any athlete could to justify the $20 million portion of his contract due to him this year.

(Actually, Peppers won me over the night after he was signed, when he ordered 25 bottles of champagne for everyone in the Chicago club where he was celebrating. As someone who has spent a little bit of time in bars during the past few decades, acts of generosity therein are especially meaningful, even if the purchase of cases of champagne at a trendy club is slightly different than buying a round for the house at the neighborhood pub.)

But the season-long resurgence of the Bear defense is not about individual excellence. It is about the unit working together beautifully to both stuff the run and to defend the pass. It must be said that pass defense couldn't have been much easier than it was against third-string Miami quarterback Tyler Thigpen and his depleted line. But this is still a unit that has come together to play some of the best defense the NFL has seen this season.

And the unquestioned leader of the unit as a whole is not Peppers but Brian Urlacher. So far, all his defense has done is lead the team as a whole to a so-much-better-than-expected seven wins in 10 games. Now the Bears can take it to the next level by succeeding against their best foe yet. Coincidentally enough, that opponent is led by the player who did the most to launch Urlacher toward stardom back in 2001.

This Sunday, quarterback Michael Vick is coming to town with the first-place Eagles team he has electrified with his awesome play the past few weeks.

It was in 2001 that a promising Bears team that would finish 13-3 - but then flame out at home in its first playoff game - traveled to Atlanta to face Vick's Falcons for an early season showdown. It was during that game that Urlacher, who was already establishing himself as a worthy heir to the Bears' cherished tradition of excellence at linebacker, made the play that cemented his arrival. The Bears had taken a 17-0 lead in the first half at the Georgia Dome but Vick was driving the Falcons toward a score that could have started to make a game of it.

Then, on the play after the Falcons moved inside the Bears' 10 yard line, Vick rolled out with the option to throw or pass but with the intention of running the ball into the end zone. That was when Urlacher used his amazing speed against the player thought to be the fastest in the NFL to spread the play out toward the sideline. With the help of defensive end Phillip Daniels, Urlacher then stepped up and spun Vick to the turf, dislodging the football in the process. Urlacher proceeded to snatch the ball off the turf and race 90 yards for what was essentially the clinching touchdown.

On Sunday evening, in a 24-17 win over the Giants, Vick showed again that he still has incredible speed for a quarterback - or, really, for any player on the field. But it has been his arm that has been most impressive since he seized the starting job in Philadelphia early this season, sat out a few games with a rib cage injury and the raced back onto the field and into the limelight in the past few weeks.

When he has had the time during the past two weeks (especially during the Eagles' huge victory over the Redskins last Monday night), he has delivered pinpoint passes all over the field, including several devastating deep balls.

Pressure from Peppers will be an important element to stopping those deep balls from getting thrown - or getting thrown with accuracy - but Urlacher will be the real key.

One great thing about the analysis of the Bears' victory over the Vikings the week before last was how clearly replays showed how well Urlacher is dropping back into pass coverage again. On numerous occasions, Brett Favre was forced to adjust passes to avoid one fast-dropping zone coverage specialist/linebacker in particular, resulting in numerous incompletions. And against Miami, Urlacher orchestrated numerous successful bliltzes, capping it all off with an almost comically overwhelming sack of Thigpen.

That was the play when Urlacher rushed in untouched - which was possible in part because the Dolphins were so worried about a Peppers stunt to the outside of the gap through which the linebacker rushed - and prepared to level Thigpen. Except that as he got there, the quarterback essentially leveled himself, going down in a heap before Urlacher could even begin to wrap him up.

The Bears will need all of Urlacher's abilities both as an individual and as a leader of the defense as a whole to limit Vick on Sunday. If they can pull that off, there won't be any more arguing about whether this team deserves its spot near the top of the NFC standings.


Jim Coffman brings you SportsMonday every week. He welcomes your comments.

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