Role players on defense are helping the Bears reconnect with their glory days as they push to Dallas
This is an article from the Jan. 24, 2011 issue
Tim Jennings could see the end coming in slow motion. When Indianapolis hired Larry Coyer as its defensive coordinator before the 2009 season, Jennings, a 5'8", 185-pound cornerback for the Colts, knew his time in Indianapolis was limited. Coyer wanted to use more man coverages; Jennings's size and skill set were better suited for zone schemes that would allow him to see plays as they developed.
After only one season in the new defense, Jennings was not offered a restricted free-agent contract by the Colts. He signed with the Bears in March 2010 but had no delusions of grandeur. At best, he thought, he would contribute on special teams and compete for playing time as a reserve corner behind Zack Bowman and Charles Tillman.
By Week 4 he was the starting left cornerback.
Like Jennings, corner D.J. Moore came into the season with the odds against him. Despite being a fourth-round pick in 2009, he did nothing to distinguish himself as a rookie. He became so angry about his lack of playing time that he soon landed in the coaches' doghouse. When Lovie Smith penciled in this season's 53-man roster entering training camp, Moore wasn't on it.
Today, he is the No. 3 cornerback and a key contributor.
Jennings and Moore are not alone. Other players have emerged from the shadows to help Chicago reach Sunday's NFC Championship Game against Green Bay. If the Bears are to take the next step and advance to the Super Bowl, their role players, particularly on defense, must continue to excel. The Chicago D—which forced eight consecutive punts to open its 35--24 divisional round victory over the Seahawks on Sunday—ranked in the top 10 in scoring defense (fourth) and total yards allowed (ninth) for the first time since the Bears' 2006 Super Bowl season. Much of the attention has gone to end Julius Peppers and linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher. But lesser-knowns such as Jennings, Moore, nosetackle Anthony Adams, end Israel Idonije and reserve lineman Henry Melton could figure just as prominently this weekend and beyond.
"They're musts," says Smith. "You have those other guys, and they have to play like stars each week. But you look at every game, and it's about the role players doing their jobs. Anthony Adams knows that every game, every play, he's probably going to get double-teamed; and, pass-rush-wise, he's not going to get a lot of opportunities. It takes a lot to sacrifice like that. But that's our DNA. We expect the same unselfishness and production regardless of who you are or what you make."
When Smith said in the off-season that he wanted the team to reconnect with the franchise's Monsters of the Midway legacy, the comment barely registered. However, the seeds that were planted then took root in training camp and sprouted during the season.
Mikal Smith, Lovie's 34-year-old son and a first-year defensive quality-control assistant, puts together the unit's playbooks. To reinforce his dad's message, he featured an old-time Monster of the Midway on the cover each week. Mikal found photos of players from George Halas's 1940s-era Bears teams, had them enlarged and included biographical information such as height, weight, draft status and professional accomplishments.
Many of the current players knew nothing about their forebears. In some respects that was perfect for Lovie Smith. If he could get his players to buy into the idea that you don't have to be famous to be important, all the better. "We kind of relate to that," says Jennings. "Those guys back then, they played their roles and did their jobs. That's kind of the mentality we have, that success isn't always about the big-name guys that you put out there; it's also about the role players."
Added Jennings, "That's how the Monsters of the Midway played."
The Monsters nickname originated with the University of Chicago, which was bordered on one end by an area known as Midway Plaisance. When the Maroons disbanded their football program in 1939, the Bears adopted the moniker and used it as their calling card during NFL championship runs in 1940, '41, '43 and '46. "There's a connection with them," linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa says of those old Bears teams. "I'll admit, I was pretty ignorant about the whole Monsters of the Midway thing. You hear about it growing up—and other nicknames like Purple People Eaters, Steel Curtain and Orange Crush, but you really don't know a lot about the guys behind it. I think the aura of that, the mentality, we've kind of connected with that—just playing dominating defense."
Little did Lovie Smith realize when he set out to reconnect with the past that he would be facing the Packers for the right to play in the Super Bowl. The league's oldest rivalry has featured such greats as Nagurski, Butkus, Grange, Halas, Payton and Sayers; and Starr, Hornung, Hutson, Nitschke, Lombardi, White and Favre. Yet as much as the names will dominate the headlines, the game could come down to players whose stories remain a mystery to casual fans. Idonije is a former special-teamer who was supposed to play a backup role at best. Instead, when the Bears cut Mark Anderson in early October, Idonije stepped in and finished the season tied with Peppers for the team lead in sacks, with eight. Chicago drafted Melton in the fourth round in 2009, but the 6'3", 260-pound defensive lineman was so underwhelming that some observers questioned whether he would get a second season with the Bears. He has since developed into a solid presence in nickel situations, using his quickness to penetrate gaps or occupying blockers so Peppers or Idonije can get free.
"That's the good thing about our team," says Melton. "We have guys getting paid [millions of dollars] and whatnot, and we have guys who are getting the league minimum, but everybody is giving it up and being held to the same standard. Our goal from the beginning was getting back to that Monsters of the Midway mentality—that physical, tough, relentless, making-plays defense where everybody has a role and they have to do their part to make it work. We've done that this year."