Sure, the unit has big names like defensive end Julius Peppers and linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. But the team-oriented message stressed by coordinator Rod Marinelli has struck a louder chord with his charges.
“We understand we have a lot of stars on our defense,” Bears strong safety Danieal Manning said after Friday’s practice at Halas Hall. “But at the same time, we say the star of our defense is our defense. Everybody is buying into it.”
While the Jay Cutler-led offense has improved as the season unfolded, Chicago’s defense is the main reason for the club’s 9-3 record heading into Sunday’s home game against New England. The Bears rank second in the NFL in points allowed (14.7 per-game average), run defense (84.9 yards) and passing touchdowns surrendered (nine overall).
“They’re fairly simple schematically, but what they do, they do very well,” one NFL personnel director told FOXSports.com. “They don’t give up big plays. They play a lot of cover-two so you have to kind of nickel and dime them (in the passing game). They’re playing much better run defense because they’re very sound with gap control.
“They may not have the most sacks but they are getting pressure. They’re fast at linebacker and pretty stout up front. The weakness is the secondary. But they haven’t been exposed too much because they don’t give you the cheap ones too often.”
Peppers, Briggs and Urlacher have played a significant role in this. Peppers is proving well worth the six-year, $84 million contract that wooed him from Carolina in free agency. Besides his own seven sacks, the regular double-team blocking that Peppers draws has created opportunities for others. For example, the seven sacks notched by left end Israel Idonije are just .5 less than his combined total the previous six seasons in Chicago.
Urlacher has once again emerged as a tackling machine after missing almost all of last season with a wrist injury. He was everywhere in last Sunday’s 24-20 victory over Detroit with a whopping 19 stops. Briggs has posted almost the same per-game tackle average (8.4) as Urlacher in the 11 contests he played.
Yet equally impressive about these prime-time players is the fact they’re not prima donnas. Marinelli and Bears teammates praised the trio’s selflessness and willingness to help others with the knowledge culled through 28 combined NFL seasons.
“We’ve got a lot of exceptional guys, but they’re strongest trait is that they’re all men of character,” Idonije said. “They understand for this defense to be successful, it’s everybody working together, not an individual.”
Unlike in recent years, Bears players are focused on their own assignments and resisting the temptation to overextend if a teammate errs. As a result, the Bears haven’t surrendered a run or pass play longer than 53 yards this season.
“Guys trust the guys they’re playing with. That’s not easy,” Idonije admitted. “Every year, it goes up and down. From training camp, we’ve started off on the right foot. Coaches have done a very good job of making it very clear what our identity was going to be. It just kind of has grown from there. Guys have really taken hold of what this defense is.”
Much of the credit belongs to someone who doesn’t want the individual attention.
No head coach in NFL history had his own star tarnished as badly as Marinelli. He was fired in Detroit after the 2008 Lions finished with the only 0-16 record in NFL history.
Marinelli, though, has reinvented himself working with Chicago’s defense. After serving as defensive line coach in 2009, Marinelli assumed the coordinator role vacated by head coach Lovie Smith.
Marinelli’s emotional approach and attention to detail have earned him the defense’s respect.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone so passionate about the game,” Idonije said.
Marinelli is just as ardent about deflecting personal praise, instead crediting his players and staff members. Marinelli, though, did say working in Detroit strengthened his conviction that the cover-two defensive scheme he used with the Lions can flourish when executed properly.
“People sometimes hide from adversity,” Marinelli said. “That’s really the only time you have a chance to develop and grow. It’s no fun. I’m not saying it is. But if your eyes are wide open and you understand what’s happening and you take the positive out of it … Too many people take the negative or go in the tank. When everything you believe in is attacked and stripped down and you still come out believing in it, your conviction is strong.”
Marinelli has such beliefs in Chicago’s scheme that he says the Bears didn’t “overanalyze” New England in pregame preparation even though the Patriots (10-2) field a diverse offense that is averaging an NFL-high 31.6 points. Marinelli instead emphasized the same points he does every week: “Playing with confidence, fundamentals and being sound. All the simple things.”
“The weather changes, the defense doesn’t,” Briggs added. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. It’s not about what they do. It’s about what we do.”
And what Chicago’s defense is doing gives everybody inside the Bears locker room a realistic chance of reaching Super Bowl XLV.
“When you believe the star of the defense is the defense,” Briggs said, “You have the recipe for success.”