Chicago Bears: Unsung Heroes of the 2012 Season
Following their 21-14 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, their fourth in their last five games, it is difficult to see what the Chicago Bears are doing right on either side of the ball.
Once 7-1, the Bears are now 8-5 and struggling to hold on to a Wild Card spot.
Not all has been bad as Brandon Marshall has been as great as advertised this season and Lance Briggs continues to be one of the best weak-side linebackers in the game, but there are also many who have not gotten the recognition that they deserve.
If the Bears have any chance of making the playoffs and making any sort of impact, they will need to rely on these unsung players.
During the 2011 season, then rookie Chris Conte got his chance to take the field after the Chicago Bears decided to release veteran safety, Chris Harris.
Conte's role was limited as he was asked mainly to protect that back half of the field, to not get beat deep, and to always keep the play in front of him. He finished with 30 tackles, two pass deflections and an interception in his nine starts.
The Bears went out in the draft and drafted safety Brandon Hardin in the third round, presumably as competition for Conte. Hardin struggled at times in training camp and in the preseason before vicious hit ended his rookie campaign.
With Hardin out of the picture, Conte maintained his firm grasp on the free safety position and has seen his role increase this season. No longer is he expected to just play deep and watch the play in front of him, but the Bears have used him frequently as a blitzer this season and he has done a nice job at forcing quarterbacks to get rid of the football quicker than they had wanted.
Conte's pass defense has been an added upgrade this season and he has been opportunistic around the football, picking up two interceptions. He can struggle trying to stop the run, but his speed and athleticism has allowed the Bears defense to be far more creative with their blitz packages and pre-snap looks this season. He just may have firmly entrenched himself at the free safety position for years to come.
Amidst all of the changes along the offensive line this season, center Roberto Garza has been one of Jay Cutler's most consistent blockers.
Garza, a former guard, has transitioned seamlessly to the center position since his move there prior to last season.
He is not the biggest, strongest, or quickest, but he is a smart player that is not often given the credit he deserves because of how poorly the players around him have performed this season.
He has had his share of down moments, but he has helped anchor the Chicago Bears during some of their more impressive games. Against the Seattle Seahawks' defense that had been very good at getting to the quarterback, the offensive line did not surrender a sack and provided Jay Cutler with ample time in the pocket.
Garza will likely never make a Pro Bowl or get mentioned in the same breathe as the league's top centers, but without his leadership and knowledge, there is no telling where this fledgling offensive line would be.
Playing alongside players like Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, it is easy to go unnoticed.
Nick Roach has always been "the other guy" in comparison to the Chicago Bears duo of potential future Hall of Famers, but following the hamstring injury to Urlacher that will sideline him likely for the rest of the regular season, Roach has been pushed to the forefront.
His first game this season at middle linebacker against the Minnesota Vikings was not anything to write home about, but he came away with five tackles, had a nice blitz on quarterback Christian Ponder that lead to an incompletion, and looked to have had command of the huddle.
While playing the strong-side linebacker position he was often forced to take on the tight end, fullback or pulling guard, and his abilities to slow down their progression helped setup his teammates for tackles.
Throughout the season he was matched up against some of the best tight ends in the league and he was able to use his above average speed to keep up with them. He also has the ability to play physical with them when needed.
His numbers will never jump off the page at you, and he'll likely never get the credit he is due, but he has proven just how important he is to this Bears' defense.
Despite losing his starting spot at left defensive end to Corey Wootton, Israel Idonije continues to be overlooked on that defensive line.
The demotion for Idonije was more about making it more competitive along the defensive line, which didn't seem to phase him (h/t Chicago Tribune):
Nothing's changed for me,'' Idonije said. "I go out and play the snaps that I'm in. My snaps haven't changed. I still have the same amount of snaps. I just have to produce.''
Through the team's first 13 games, he has 5.5 sacks, inching closer to his career high of 8 back in 2010.
Despite the defense's breakdown against the Seattle Seahawks two weeks ago, Idonije has been solid against the run and has found himself working not just on the outside, but also on the inside, particularly on third down situations where the Bears try to get first round draft pick, Shea McClellin, more involved.
Idonije's contributions often go unnoticed when playing opposite of a guy like Julius Peppers or next to a guy like Henry Melton. He has been far more explosive off of the football this year in comparison to the past and it forces teams to not always be able to double up or chip Peppers because of what he is doing on the opposite side.
He is not the fastest guy, but he creates pressure with regularity and is arguably the Bear's best defensive end against the run. If they want a chance to not only go to the playoffs and be successful when they get there, Idonije will have to continue to play the way that he has along that defensive line.