The first thing Lovie Smith wants to make crystal clear is that his role this year as the defensive play caller isn't a drastic change from the way he's operated since becoming the Bears' head coach in 2004.
Smith has always had the final say, even though defensive coordinator Bob Babich was making the call the previous two years and Ron Rivera the three years before that. As of this season, Smith makes the call.
"A typical call, [last year], while I didn't make it, I was there throughout the entire call," Smith said. "I was overseeing the entire thing. So, really, we just kind of changed roles a little bit. I've always ... in every bad game ... the worst games we've had here defensively, I've been a part of that, all right? So I've always been involved in everything with it."
But now Smith is more involved in defensive meetings, and his role as the play caller has been highly publicized, bringing greater scrutiny to his own performance. But he insists that doesn't bring with it any more pressure, and even if it did, so be it.
"Everything comes back to me anyway," he said. "Everything that goes wrong with our program, as I see it, comes back to me, the head football coach. I want it that way. All head coaches should want it that way. I've heard all those things, like, 'Hey, don't go into that role because then they'll be pointing at you.' But it all comes back to me, and it should. So no, that doesn't bother me at all."
Any such advice came unsolicited because Smith said he had already made the decision that he felt needed to be made.
"I didn't ask anybody about their opinion on whether I should do this," he said. "I felt like I needed to do it, and I did it."
Taking over the play calling on one side of the ball is nothing unusual in the NFL. Head coaches tend to assume control of the offense or the defense, depending on their own background. When Smith was the defensive coordinator with the Rams, he was the one calling plays, as offense-minded head coach Mike Martz focused on that side of the ball. Transitioning back to play calling wasn't much of an adjustment for Smith.
"I never was that far away from it," he said. "It's not like it was my first game calling plays and I was staying up the night before thinking 'I'm going to start calling plays.' It wasn't like that. I feel like I've been involved in all of the calls throughout, so it felt comfortable from Day 1."
While Smith has the final say, several coaches are involved in the process of getting the play relayed to the field. It starts with assistant defensive backs coach Gill Byrd and assistant defensive line coach Eric Washington, who are up in the booth and provide Smith with down, distance and the opponent's offensive personnel for each play.
"Our defensive personnel has to match up with that," Smith said. "[Whether] it's just base, two tight ends, two running backs, two wide receivers, three wide receivers – we match up the personnel based on what the offense does."
Then Smith decides what defense or combination of defenses the Bears will play: nickel, Cover 2, base; and what kind of blitzes they'll bring, if any. There usually isn't any time for debate between plays.
"No discussion," Smith said. "You don't [have time to] discuss a whole lot. We put in a game plan through the week, and everyone has input then. You need one play caller on game day to make the call and go."
Smith's call is transmitted to whoever is playing middle linebacker, since that player's helmet is equipped with a receiver. Because of injuries, Brian Urlacher, Hunter Hillenmeyer and Nick Roach have all started games in the middle.
"Whoever the Mike (middle) linebacker is, he's making all the calls," Smith said. "Our safety is getting the offensive personnel to the rest of the defense. Whoever our Will (weak-side) linebacker is lets everyone on the field know what the down and distance is, what the situation is. And that's standard."
Getty Images: Jonathan Daniel
When the defense is off the field, or during timeouts or other lulls in the action, and at halftime, Smith will consult with all his defensive coaches, much as he always has.
"I just don't see how it's changed an awful lot," he said. "I'm more involved in meetings and things like that defensively, but I feel like I've been involved throughout. In the past, I've just been sending the message through the coaches to the players. Now it's more me directly to them."
So far, the early results have been mostly positive.
Last year, the Bears were 21st in yards allowed. This year, they're 13th. They've improved from 30th to 20th in passing yards allowed, from 29th to fifth in sacks per pass play and from a tie for 16th to 13th in points allowed.
News and Notes
LB Pisa Tinoisamoa is like a sprinter who suffers a pulled hamstring coming out of the starting blocks. The former Rams standout won the job at strong-side linebacker in training camp but suffered a sprained knee on the first play in the season opener.
"I took a shot from the running back, [Ryan] Grant," Tinoisamoa said. "He came in and hit right on my shin. The shin shot back and the upper part of my leg stayed there, so it [partially] tore that [posterior cruciate] ligament that holds it from going back and forth. It was the first play. It kind of went numb, but I thought, I'm all right. The second play I was trying to run around, and I felt something shift in my knee and I was like, Wait, that isn't right. So I went to the sideline, and that's when they diagnosed it."
Tinoisamoa practiced Monday and expects to be back in the starting lineup Sunday night against the Falcons, and he feels he has something to prove to his new teammates.
"Even to Jamar [Williams], who's been playing in my spot while I was hurt," the seven-year veteran said. "And to Nick [Roach] and all the guys. I definitely have to prove myself."
Roach replaced Tinoisamoa initially but then shifted to middle linebacker in the third game after Hillenmeyer suffered a rib injury. That moved Williams into the No. 1 spot on the strong side. The Bears won all three games that Tinoisamoa missed, which makes him even more anxious to return.
"Winning's a good thing, and you always want to be a part of it," Tinoisamoa said. "I'm there. I go to the meetings and whatnot. But I'm not actually out there on the field, so I really don't get to experience that, and that's [why] I came here, wanting to win." ...
Both of the Bears' next two opponents won impressively Sunday in upsets on the road. The Falcons dismantled the 49ers 45-10 in San Francisco, and the Bengals stunned the Ravens 17-14 in Baltimore.
But Smith insists he was focused solely on the next opponent.
"I'm told [the Bengals] played well," Smith said. "I watched a lot of that San Francisco-Atlanta [game]. All of our thoughts are really on them. That's enough to keep us up."
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