LAKE FOREST – As Nick Roach prepares to step into Brian Urlacher’s long-held spot in the middle of the Bears’ defense, he knows that every snap will invite a comparison.
Could Urlacher have made that tackle? Could Urlacher have broken up that pass? Could Urlacher have sniffed out that audible at the line of scrimmage?
“That’s naturally what’s going to happen,” Roach said Thursday at Halas Hall. “I’ll probably do the same thing – wonder what Brian might have done in the situation, or ask him how he feels about what he saw that maybe I didn’t see. I think it’s a good thing.”
At least something good has come out of Urlacher’s hamstring injury.
The Bears (8-4) will rely on Roach to fill the void of their injured leader when they visit the Minnesota Vikings (6-6) on Sunday at Mall of America Field. Roach, 27, is expected to remain at middle linebacker for at least the next couple of weeks in place of Urlacher, who came up limping on the second-to-last play of the Bears’ overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Meanwhile, Geno Hayes will fill Roach’s typical starting role at strong-side linebacker.
Although Roach filled in at middle linebacker during the preseason while Urlacher was sidelined, his starting experience at the position is limited. He started three games at middle linebacker in place of Urlacher in 2009, and the Bears went 1-2 during that span.
Urlacher and Roach are close, although their personalities could not be much more different.
Urlacher is blunt and loud. Roach is diplomatic and soft-spoken.
Urlacher is a speed talker. Roach is prone to thoughtful pauses.
Urlacher enjoys pingpong. Roach is an accomplished artist.
But the gap between the two has narrowed, if you believe 10th-year veteran Lance Briggs.
“His voice has developed,” Briggs said with a smile when asked about Roach.
“I don’t know the right word, but it’s matured,” Briggs said. “He sounds louder on the field.
“Communication is not going to be a problem. Even if guys don’t hear, we’ve been in the system long enough where we understand – we should all understand – by recognizing formation and seeing what teams are in.”
Roach shrugged off Briggs’ teasing in his typical, sleepy delivery.
“Lance is a funny guy,” Roach said. “I try to make a conscious effort to get the communications clear so the guys can hear it.”
Teammates respect Roach for his consistency and versatility in Lovie Smith’s “Tampa 2” defense. In the Bears’ 28-10 win against the Vikings in Week 12, Roach recorded seven tackles and stripped the ball from running back Adrian Peterson to set up the Bears’ first touchdown.
Roach is seventh on the team with 43 tackles to go along with a forced fumble and 1˝ sacks.
“Nick is Nick,” Bears defensive back Kelvin Hayden said. “They call him ‘The Natural’ around here. He’s one of those guys that can play all three [linebacker] positions.
“He’s usually on the details. He very seldom makes mistakes. We don’t expect anything else but for Nick to be Nick, and he’s doing that.”
Roach knows that he cannot do anything to stop comparisons with Urlacher.
That’s fine with him. His main focus is to help stop the Vikings.
“I wish that Brian was in there, obviously,” Roach said. “It’s unfortunate to see him go down. But I’ve been prepared for it for a while.”