O'Hara: With only one season as a Lion, it isn’t too early to rank what Tulloch means to the defense

Posted Jun 26, 2012

Middle linebacker is more than a position on the depth chart in this part of the country, where “Black and Blue Division” and “Purple People Eaters” are nicknames that represent a tradition of hard-hitting defense.

Legendary players have roamed the middle of legendary defenses and left an imprint on opposing offensive players and the game’s history. Stephen Tulloch is the man in the middle of the Lions’ defense. Even with only one season on his career log as a Lion, it isn’t too early to rank what Tulloch means to the defense.

He fills the leadership role and personality requirements that go with the physical skills needed to be an effective middle linebacker. When the signals are relayed from the sideline, all eyes are on the middle linebacker. He’s the one who relays them to the defense and makes whatever adjustments are needed. The middle linebacker is the authority figure on defense. He commands the huddle. The impact of middle linebacker’s personality cannot be discounted.

“Any time you’re right in the middle of the action, there’s something definitely to that,” Coach Jim Schwartz said. “It’s not just the way you play, but your ability to direct all the other players.”

Middle linebacker is a legacy position for the teams that make up the NFC North. The position was invented by the Bears in 1951 by a tactical move involving Bill George, a middle guard on the Bears’ five-man line. In a game in the 1951 season, he was told to drop back into pass coverage. He became the first middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense. George became a Hall of Famer, and a wave of other middle linebackers followed up.

Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary of the Bears followed George to Canton. Joe Schmidt of the Lions and Ray Nitschke of the Packers are in Canton. Current Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher will be a Hall of Fame candidate after he retires.

Tulloch is aware of the history of his position, but in his personal history, the important date is that his first position in football was middle linebacker – and he never switched.

“I’ve been playing middle linebacker since I was five years old,” Tulloch said. “I’ve learned the ropes of reading offenses and breaking down formations. When I go home, I study film. I try to get ahead of the game.

“You have to command the huddle. It starts with you. The play comes in from the defensive coordinator. You’ve got to relay it to everybody else. “You’ve got to be able to make checks and alerts. You have to position your players. “You’re the quarterback of the defense.”

Tulloch’s passion for the game was fueled by the circumstances of his upbringing in Miami, where he was born and raised and continues to live in the offseason. He was raised by his mother, Mercedes, in a single-parent home. She worked hard to give him opportunities to succeed in life.

“My mentality is a little different,” Tulloch said. “I’ve always had a single-parent mom. I’ve seen her struggle for so many years. So to let my frustration out, I’d go on the field trying to punish everybody -- make plays, make her happy, provide a better life for her. “That’s the mindset I have. I’ve seen her work – all the hard work she does. I love the fact that she gave her all. I go on the field and give my all.”

Football has evolved over the years. The game that Bill George played in 1951, or Joe Schmidt in 1961, or Dick Butkus in 1971 – or even Chris Spielman, a four-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense for the Lions in 1991 – has changed dramatically.

Offenses are pass-oriented, and the physical requirements of defending against tight ends and running backs make it a luxury for teams that have a middle linebacker who can play on every down. Tulloch is one of those luxuries for the Lions.

“In a pass-happy league, you have tight ends who can stretch he field vertically like no other,” Tulloch said. “You’ve got to be able to drop back in coverage and drive routes.

“You’re asked a lot playing the position. It’s a physical position. You’ve got to put your body in there. Every play, you’re taking on an offensive lineman. You’re scraping the play. You’re getting tossed around. You’re falling and getting up for 60 minutes. It’s physical.”

It’s also mental, and Tulloch got respect immediately from his teammates, even though NFL rules imposed during last year’s lockout by the owners kept him from signing with the team until August. His first workout wasn’t until after training camp had started.

Tulloch stepped into the defense along with outside linebacker Justin Durant, another free-agent signee, without a hitch. Tulloch was familiar with the defensive concept from his days in Tennessee, where he played three seasons with Schwartz as defensive coordinator. Tulloch led the team with 111 tackles. He also had three sacks, five pass breakups and two interceptions. This offseason, ESPN ranked him as one of the NFL’s most underrated players.

The Lions showed how much they valued him by re-signing him in March to a five-year, $25.5 million contract. The deal included $11.25 million in guaranteed money. Tulloch showed his versatility – the demands on playing middle linebacker -- in sequence of plays in the Lions’ 34-30 win at Dallas in Game 4 last year.

Dallas was holding a 30-24 lead with a first down at its three-yard line in the fourth quarter. Tulloch made tackles that held the Cowboys to gains of a yard and two yards on two running plays, forcing a punt from deep in the Cowboys’ territory. The Lions converted the exchange into a field goal that cut the deficit to 30-27.

On the first play after the ensuing kickoff, Tulloch got in front of tight end Jason Witten to make an interception 40 yards downfield from the line of scrimmage. The Lions converted the turnover into the game-winning score – on a pass from Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson. Tulloch had a big game – 12 tackles, a quarterback hit, a pass breakup and the interception. All part of a day’s work for a middle linebacker.

“I love contact,” Tulloch said. “I love being in charge. I love having people look at me for the answers.”