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The Matchup
Peter King
September 23, 2002
Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and Falcons quarterback Michael Vick showed off their speed and athleticism in a showdown between two of the league's hottest young stars
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September 23, 2002

The Matchup

Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and Falcons quarterback Michael Vick showed off their speed and athleticism in a showdown between two of the league's hottest young stars

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Urlacher and Vick are two of the most charismatic young stars in the league. According to NFL Shop, the league's online store, Urlacher's jersey is the biggest seller in the league this year (through August). Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady's is second, followed by Vick's. " Vick's sales are in anticipation of what he'll do," says NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. "With Urlacher, the [ Chicago] region prides itself on defense, and now he makes it a trio of great linebackers—Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Urlacher."

Part of the players' popularity has to do with their character. Neither man shields himself with an entourage; both are off-season workout junkies. When Vick knew he was going to be late for a voluntary summer skull session, he called quarterbacks coach Jack Burns to apologize in advance. Urlacher moved to Atlanta for four weeks in May to work with a lateral-speed coach. On the field neither man woofs or dances or does much look-at-me stuff. "I like to think of myself as a regular guy, except I play football for a living," Urlacher says. "I try not to be an arrogant turd out there."

What made Sunday's game even more compelling was Vick's performance in Atlanta's 37-34 overtime loss in Green Bay the previous week. He completed his first 10 passes, finished 15 of 23 for 209 yards and a touchdown, and ran nine times for 72 yards. Last year the Bears blitzed the tar out of Vick when he relieved Chris Chandler in the second half of their 31-3 win. But Chicago planned a more conservative scheme on Sunday, with defensive coordinator Greg Blache assuming that Vick would be a significantly better pocket passer than he was a year ago. Smart move. The Bears hemmed in Vick for much of the first half. The only damage he did came on a swing pass to Warrick Dunn, who deked two defenders while sprinting 10 yards for a score. At half-time Atlanta led an uninspiring game 10-7.

In the second half, with its offense still struggling, Chicago decided to blitz Vick more. But, for the most part, Vick threw the ball away or hit his hot receiver before the rush did much damage. In fact, for the game's first 44 minutes, Vick and Urlacher were matador and bull. Late in the third quarter things finally began to heat up.

On third-and-seven from the Atlanta 24, Urlacher blitzed around the right side of the Falcons' line, and only the 5'9" Dunn stood in his way as he closed in on Vick, who was looking to his left for wideout Willie Jackson. "I know from film that Dunn likes to cut people, so I went over him," Urlacher said. He leaped so high that Dunn whiffed on the block, and the linebacker fell into Vick just as the quarterback released the ball. The pass fell incomplete.

With the Bears leading 14-13 at the start of the fourth quarter, Vick had to find a way to score. He would have three more possessions, and on each drive he would have Urlacher standing in his path. That was how this game was supposed to be decided.

FIRST DRIVE: On second-and-seven from the Atlanta 12, Vick read an Urlacher blitz perfectly and beat it, throwing a dump-off to fullback Bob Christian for nine yards. On second-and-10, Vick rolled left and Urlacher showed the lateral speed he had worked so hard to improve. Vick tried to turn the corner, but Urlacher lunged and whacked the quarterback's right hip with an open palm, sending him spinning out of bounds for a one-yard loss. "I thought I had a good angle on him," Urlacher said, "which shows you how fast he is. I barely got him." Two plays later Atlanta punted.

SECOND DRIVE: Vick was hurting as he stared at a second-and-20 from the Atlanta 36 with 4:44 left. Earlier in the possession Urlacher and a host of Bears had drawn a personal-foul penalty for a hit on the quarterback, and then Vick had been sacked by linebacker Rosevelt Colvin for a 10-yard loss. Now a shaken Vick called the wrong formation in the huddle, forcing him to burn a timeout when he got to the line. That was just as well: He needed a breather. But quickly he took away the collective breath of 68,081 souls when he broke left looking for a receiver, only to be forced back to the right because of heavy pressure. "My body was in an awkward position," he said later, "but I had no choice. I had to throw it." Leaning right, with hardly any momentum and no semblance of proper mechanics, the lefthander unleashed a missile. Forty-one yards downfield the ball whistled through the upraised hands of safety Mike Brown. After traveling another seven yards, the ball nestled into the gut of a diving Jackson. The crowd went nuts. Urlacher pirouetted in disbelief. Vick looked to the Teflon ceiling of the Georgia Dome and screamed. But wait. The Bears challenged the call, and after a replay review, referee Jeff Triplette ruled the ball had been trapped.

On the next play Urlacher darted around the left side of the Chicago defense and was on Vick before he knew it. "I tried to make something happen, but he was right on me," said Vick, who stepped back to elude the linebacker's lunging sack attempt, then tried to get upright and away. But Urlacher rose, cat-quick, and lunged again. This time Vick went down, for a 16-yard loss.

THIRD DRIVE: Vick had moved the Falcons into position for the winning points, sandwiching a pair of completions totaling 27 yards around a 17-yard dash on a quarterback draw. Now facing a third-and-one at the Chicago 28 with 1:10 left, he took the snap and churned forward, only to meet Urlacher, who had plugged the gap between the defensive tackles. The spot was maybe five inches short, so in came Jay Feely for a 45-yard field goal attempt. The ball passed about two feet outside the left upright.

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