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

September 22, 2002

FRIDAY, 12:46 p.m., Atlanta
Falcons quarterbacks meeting room, Flowery Branch, Ga.

Michael Vick is watching the nightmare unfold on the huge video
screen, and it's making him sick. "Right here," Vick says,
pausing the video with the clicker in his hand. "I am so pissed
at myself."

The Falcons have first-and-goal at the Chicago three-yard line.
The Bears lead 17-0, but if Atlanta scores a touchdown here, who
knows? On the screen Vick, playing in his third NFL game, takes
the snap, rolls left and looks for a receiver. The 6-foot,
215-pound passer is Deion-fast (4.3 in the 40, the best ever for
an NFL quarterback), but Chicago defensive end Phillip Daniels
and linebacker Brian Urlacher are moving faster than any
front-seven players have a right to, and they're keeping Vick
from turning the corner.

"Throw it away!" Vick says urgently to the screen. "Throw it
away!"

Daniels has his arms wrapped around Vick's waist--"Take the sack!"
Vick yells at the screen--but he is young and too brave for his
own good. Vick cocks his arm, but before he can make the throw,
Daniels delivers a jarring hit that knocks the ball loose.
Urlacher pounces on it. "It's all over now," Vick says, as he
watches Urlacher sprint 90 yards for a touchdown. Game over.

"Last year I underestimated the Bears' speed," Vick, 22, and now
a full-time NFL starter, says after the video plays out. "I
especially underestimated Urlacher's speed. He makes Ray
Lewis-type plays. But now I'm better. That's why Sunday should be
so great. He's one of the best. I think I'm going to be one of
the best. I can't wait."

SATURDAY, 8:58 p.m., Atlanta Hilton, fourth-floor meeting room

"It's funny," Urlacher says, thinking back to that 90-yard fumble
return. "I was supposed to be in man coverage on number 43
[running back Maurice Smith], but I didn't think he was too much
of a threat. I left him and chased Vick. There's just something
about him. You don't want to let him beat you."

Urlacher, in a white T-shirt and shorts, looks like he should
fight Stallone in Rocky VI. At 6'4" and 260 pounds, he has the
perfect physique for a middle linebacker and then some--his
backside and legs are cut like those of a sprinter. He is made to
play in this game, to get after a quarterback who could turn out
to be the most electric athlete ever to take a snap in the NFL,
and you can see how excited he is about their forthcoming
showdown. "My best games come against scramblers," says Urlacher,
24, and in his third year leading the revival of the Bears. "I
pretty much have the freedom to run around. What's going to make
it such a challenge is that Vick can outrun me; most quarterbacks
can't. But I know this: I won't fall for his fakes. I think there
will be some big collisions tomorrow."

SUNDAY 1 p.m., Georgia Dome

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
halftime 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.

Walking off the field, Urlacher, drenched in sweat, said only six
words: "That little s--- can run. Wow!"

THE FINAL TALLY: Urlacher had 12 tackles, two sacks, one fumble
recovery; Vick was 17 of 28 for 166 yards and the one touchdown,
plus 10 carries for 56 yards. He'd played much better than he had
in the first game against Chicago, but he was feeling the same
disappointment he had experienced while watching the video. "It
makes me sick we didn't win," Vick said, almost inaudibly, at his
locker. "The missed opportunities, man--you just can't have those
and win games."

In the visitors' locker room, you could tell Urlacher was glad to
be getting out of Vick's house with a win. "He's the hardest guy
in the league to tackle," he said, "harder than any running back
I've faced. He's much more accurate than I remember from last
year. He's going to be really good for a long time."

Because Urlacher and Vick play in different divisions, we may
have to wait until 2005 to see them square off again, and that's
a shame.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO MANO A MANO The confrontation intensified late in the third quarter, when Vick (7) tried to rally Atlanta and Urlacher went all out to stop him. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS PRESSURE Stalked by Urlacher and chased by Bryan Knight (90), Vick showed his elusiveness by running for 56 yards. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO TWO-ZIP Urlacher swatted Vick out of bounds for a sack and walked off triumphant for the second year in a row. COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS [See caption above]

THE BEARS WERE RELUCTANT TO BLITZ VICK, BECAUSE HE HAD IMPROVED
SO MUCH AS A PASSER

"I TRIED TO MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN," VICK SAID, "BUT [URLACHER]
WAS RIGHT ON ME"

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)