As the coordinator, Rod Marinelli is responsible for the entire defense, but his focus always has been and will continue to be on the big guys up front.
Marinelli became known as one of the NFL's best D-line coaches during a decade (1996-2005) in Tampa Bay, when the Buccaneers' front four was annually one of the league's best, especially when it came to rushing the passer. That's why he's perfectly suited to getting increased production from a Bears' defensive line that must play a huge role in any improvement on that side of the ball, especially when it comes to rushing the passer.
The Bears got 36 sacks from their linemen in 2006, but they've fallen way off since then with 28 in 2007, 22.5 in '06 and 24 last season.
It's a unit in transition this year, without long-time defensive end starters Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye, but with the addition of Julius Peppers. A battle for the other end spot is being waged between Mark Anderson and Israel Idonije. The winner will be the player that supplies the best pass rush, which is why Anderson is the favorite to win the job.
"They understand the importance of the one-on-ones," Marinelli said. "They're both tough. They'll play their run gaps well. Now it comes down to who can win the one-on-ones."
With the five-time Pro Bowler Peppers at the other end attracting double-team blocks, Anderson/Idonije will have the luxury of working against just one blocker.
"And they've got to win them," Marinelli said, "so you're constantly evaluating that."
Peppers, a 6-7, 283-pound physical freak with rare athleticism, has done much more than divert attention from his linemates.
"The thing I really admire with 'Pep' right now is that he's come in here, and he has worked, every day, every snap, like a pro," Marinelli said. "From note taking, to details, to his pass rush; just the little, subtle things that we ask him to do, he's on it. What a great example for a lot of our young players up front, to see a guy being a pro like that and working each and every day. That's been special."
The nose tackle position is another one that's being contested, between Anthony Adams and Marcus Harrison. The 6-3, 312-pound Harrison is bigger and four years younger than the 6-0, 310-pound Adams. But Harrison has already missed practice time with heat-related problems including dehydration, and Adams, who's getting most of the first-team snaps, has made a career of outplaying more highly touted teammates.
"He's had a very, very solid camp," Marinelli said of Adams, who led all Bears linemen with 42 tackles last season. "Each and every day, he comes out and works. He knows his job, but he expands his job. What I mean by that is, he's a sideline-to-sideline player as a nose tackle. He's got rare rush ability for a nose."
Because it's just two weeks into camp, Harrison hasn't fallen out of the race, but he has to pick up the pace soon if he's going to increase his playing time.
"That's why we have training camp," Marinelli said. "You get [three] weeks we have at it, and you get in shape and get in condition, and you keep working at it until you get it right. You start to learn to develop the endurance to play this game, the mindset to play this game, or you limit snaps."
One of the most encouraging signs of camp is a healthy Tommie Harris being on the practice field at the three-technique tackle spot more than in the past two years.
DT Tommie Harris
"The biggest thing to getting better is showing up every day, and he's in there, he's getting padded up every single day, and in this game, and in what we're trying to do, practice is everything," Marinelli said. "It's skill development. The key is lining up and getting the work, and he's doing that."
When healthy, Harris has been, in addition to a disruptive force to the offense, a formidable pass rusher. And that, according to Marinelli, is what it comes down to.
"You've got to be able to develop a pass rush," he said. "Not just on third down, but first down, too. That is a key point for us. They've got to do everything else. They've got to do it all. But the icing is the pass rush. We have to have that."
NOTES AND QUOTES
Julius Peppers has spent a good portion of training camp taking young left tackle Chris Williams to school; not just by beating him with a variety of pass-rush moves but by teaching him how to become a better NFL player.
But Peppers doesn't want any accolades for Williams' improvement.
"I can see that he's getting better, but I'm not taking the credit for it," Peppers said. "He's being coached by a great coach (Mike Tice), and I think that's helping him get better. We're competing against each other hard every day, so I owe him that. Not only is he getting better, but I'm getting better going against him."
How does a five-time Pro Bowl player benefit from working against a youngster with five NFL starts at left tackle?
"Just having to bring it every day in every drill because I know he's a great player himself," Peppers said. You compete against good tackles in practice, and you get better." ...
When it comes to offensive coordinator Mike Martz evaluating quarterback Jay Cutler, even something as inconsequential as a preseason opener is more important than anything that occurred last year.
Cutler threw a league-worst 26 interceptions in 2007, along with 27 TDs, but that's ancient history to Martz.
"I haven't discussed at all anything about last year with Jay," Martz said. Really, it just has no bearing on anything today. We don't talk about it. We don't think about it. It's never really crossed my mind."
Except when he's asked about it, and Cutler's struggles in the red zone, which has been often.
"I feel like I know what Jay is and who he is to where I'm not concerned about it at all. If you ever watch our red-zone stuff out here, he's just been lights out. I'm very pleased with his ability in the red zone. I don't worry about that with him at all." ...
Even though he hasn't had a kickoff- or punt-return touchdown in two years, Devin Hester's presence on the field in those situations still creates a buzz.
Now that he's a full-time receiver, Hester is limited to returning only punts, and coach Lovie Smith doesn't like to court disaster by using him in that role in the preseason. Hester got just one opportunity last year and took it back for 54 yards.
"If I'm back there, they just want me to fair catch," Hester said. "I don't know what the plan is for this preseason, but I always try to sneak one or two in." ...
The Bears will be back at Olivet Nazarene University for a 10th training camp next year, but after that, the future is hazy.
"We've got a long-standing relationship here with the people of Olivet Nazarene, and it's been very, very good, from the president on down," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "Right now, this is our summer home, and we've been very happy with the accommodations, with the fields and with the hospitality."
After next year, the Bears will have to decide whether to remain at ONU or consider other sites, such as Romeoville's Lewis University, which has been mentioned frequently as a possible destination. In the past few years, several NFL teams have opted to hold training camp at their own practice facility, but Angelo said that's not for the Bears.
"Right now, this works best for us," he said. "It's really been a great relationship. A lot of teams are having their training camps on site. Ours is a little bit different in terms of the design of our facility, of the logistics."
QUOTE TO NOTE
"Oh, all of them know how to hold." – DE Julius Peppers, when asked if OT Chris Williams was learning how to hold like an NFL offensive lineman.
Agree? Disagree? Let your voice be heard on our message board RIGHT HERE
Bear Report: The only publication exclusively dedicated to your Chicago Bears.