Commentary

D-line thinking new thoughts

Marinelli brings decades of expertise, excellence

Originally Published: August 14, 2009
By Jerry Bonkowski | ESPNChicago.com

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- The full impact of instilling a new mindset in the Chicago Bears' defensive line will be measured for the first time in Saturday's preseason opener at the Buffalo Bills.

[+] EnlargeRod Marinelli
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhRod Marinelli brings a wealth of defensive line coaching experience to the Bears.

At the center of that revamped mindset is new Bears defensive line/assistant head coach Rod Marinelli, considered by many around the league as the guru of the defensive line. The Bears like what they see from Marinelli, and he likes what he's seen from the Bears thus far.

"We've got a really good group, a deep group; there's really good competition within the group; and they care," Marinelli said.

Given its performance last season, the Bears' defensive line needed help in several areas, particularly sacks (dropped from 40 in 2007 to just 27 in 2008), forced fumbles (22 to 8), fumble recoveries (33 to 14) and total tackles (834 to 782).

Most glaring was the pass rush. Once one of the stalwarts of the team, the pass rush has dropped off to the point that the Bears were 30th in the league last season.

Enter Marinelli, the man who has been tasked with turning things around. Since joining the team in January after three years as head coach of the Detroit Lions, he's been given great latitude and has assumed several roles to get his message across:

  • He's been a salesman, trying to sell the defensive line on a new style of play.
  • He's been a preacher, extolling the virtue of a new attitude that every lineman appears to have willingly and readily grabbed onto.
  • He's been a counselor, paying special emphasis to the veterans, trying to help them think outside the box they've played within for the last several years.
  • Most importantly, Marinelli has been a drill sergeant. He's trying to show his young recruits the right way, the most efficient way and the most impactful way to be a stronger defensive front.

"Rod has great technical knowledge," Bears head coach Lovie Smith said. "It's one thing to scream at the guys and to tell them what to do, but to show them what to do and teach them what to do, they've bought into it.

"We have some veterans that have seen a lot of guys and have been coached by a lot of different guys, and they're buying into everything Rod is teaching them."

Given how the line's production trailed off in the second half of last season, Smith brought in Marinelli to recharge, re-energize and revitalize.

"He's definitely a teacher, motivator, all the things you look for in a great coach," Smith said. "That's kind of the mold of what you want a defensive line coach to be."

When Marinelli came to the Bears, he had just come off a trying tenure with the Lions, who went 10-38 in his three-year stint, capped by the first winless season in the 16-game era. Critics questioned what a coach with such a poor record could bring to Chicago.

But being a defensive line coach has been both Marinelli's primary vocation and avocation. It's a role in which he has excelled in his career, particularly during his 10-year stretch with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Bucs amassed 328½ sacks during that time, tops in the NFL. He also helped mold Pro Bowl players like Warren Sapp (seven selections) and Simeon Rice (two). He also was credited as being one of the main reasons why the Bucs, led by a punishing and very stingy defensive front, went on to win Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002.

"I'm surprised at what he does," Bears utility lineman Israel Idonije said. "He's the best at what he does as far as D-line coaches. His lines outperform others, so when you get that kind of guy, you expect to learn something that you never learned from before. He's the best."

That's a pretty high praise from a veteran, but even rookies have quickly bought into Marinelli's system.

[+] EnlargeJarron Gilbert
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRod Marinelli sees Jarron Gilbert as the future.

"[Marinelli is] a great teacher and motivator," top draft pick Jarron Gilbert said. "He inspires you in so many ways. I've had a lot of different coaches, but he's in a whole different class with the way he teaches and makes you want to learn."

Marinelli said Gilbert figures prominently in the Bears' line plans down the road. For now, though, it's all about learning.

"They're all good," Marinelli said of Gilbert and other young defensive players on the team. "The first time out of the chute in college, those things worked. Now, everything is kind of equalized. It's all about fundamentals, technique and all the details."

Changing attitudes and habits are two of the key elements of Marinelli's doctrine. Even though he is relatively small physically, Marinelli is a giant when it comes to having his players learn to live, breath, think and sleep good defensive play.

"It's an attitude, a lifestyle almost," Idonije said. "It's an understanding of our assignments, focusing on the little things. Some of the things he's put in, it's top-secret and I can't tell you, but the guy has a whole lot that he brings to the table as far as understanding when we as a defensive line, when we see something, how to put yourself in a position to make plays."

Whereas some coaches in the league berate players when they make mistakes or come up short in terms of performance, Marinelli would rather remain soft-spoken than criticize.

"He treats us like men," defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said. "He wants you to be the best, to play your best and to really think when you're playing your position. It's not just about physical strength; it's also about out-thinking your opponent, as well as having an attitude that you really are the better guy. It's all about attitude."

To Marinelli, screaming and getting red in the face is counterproductive. He'd rather use logic. He wants the players to take it upon themselves not only to know when they've made a mistake, but also to correct that mistake without having to be told.

"When I talk about attitude, it's about effort, knowing what to do, playing with great skill and finishing everything," Marinelli said. "You don't need talent to do that; you just need attitude. What is a great attitude? Being willing to come out and work every day. To me, that's a great attitude."

Guys like Ogunleye, now in his 10th NFL season, have developed tendencies and habits over the years that may have worked for them so far. But Marinelli is the type that wants players to take what works best for them and build upon it, and then he'll tweak things if necessary to bring out 100 percent in each player.

[+] EnlargeAlex Brown
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesAlex Brown and the D-line hope to make more plays in the backfield.

"This defense has done a great job at getting turnovers," Marinelli said. "We've got to keep that going, keep getting better at that, keep getting off the field and giving [the offense] a chance to score."

He also likes that the defensive line is one of the younger units in the league, averaging 26.4 years old, but has just enough experience to give the Bears what Marinelli likes to call "really a beautiful blend" up front.

Beautiful blend or not, some of the ingrained habits that players have picked up over the years -- while not necessarily bad -- often make their individual play and the collective play of the line repetitive and predictable. This allows opposing offenses to alter their schemes accordingly.

As a result, Marinelli wants more of an element of surprise to come from his line. He wants them to change their tendencies with the goal of catching the offense off-guard.

"There's no secrets in football," Marinelli said. "It's fundamentals, consistency, knowing exactly what to do, know what your responsibility is on each and every assignment. We have to deliver on our rush. When our number is called we have to make hay with it, be in proper position and play your gaps. That's all it is, no more than that."

Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? We'll find out how well Marinelli's students have learned their lessons during the first three weeks of training camp. Saturday is graduation day to what Smith, Marinelli and the Bears hope are much bigger and better things to come from the D-line.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

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