Lovie Smith's Defense: Coaching Tree Spreads Roots in Chicago

Benjamin MiraskiContributor IMay 28, 2009

LAKE FOREST, IL - MAY 01: Head coach Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears meets with the media after a rookie mini-camp practice on May 1, 2009 at Halas Hall in Lake Forest, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

What is the difference between 5-3 and 7-1? For the Bears it was a little under seven minutes.

The Bears collapsed against Tampa Bay during the final six minutes in game three of the 2008 season, necessitating an overtime period that ultimately went to the Bucs.

Against Atlanta, a late 10-point comeback was spoiled by a slacking defense that gave Jason Elam a chance to do what he does best—connect from long distance to break opponents’ hearts.

Ask any Bears fan about those games and two harsh words will come from their lips: Bob Babich.

For right or wrong, Chicago’s defensive coordinator took the majority of the blame for those two games, missing the playoffs, and generally ruining Chicago’s strong defensive tradition.

The last part might be harsh, but the fear caused by the icy stares of frozen Chicago linebackers wasn’t there last season. Someone has to have their head on a pike for that.

Babich not (totally) to blame

Before taking Babich to the guillotine, it is important to remember that he helped build the recent incarnation of the defense into what it was.

No position is synonymous with Chicago more than linebacker, and as the linebacker coach, Babich has been an important part of shaping that group since 2004.

The hated coach helped turn Lance Briggs from just another third-round draft pick into a four-time Pro Bowl pick. He re-energized Brian Urlacher, who looked like he might never have another great season after his injury-plagued 2004 campaign. And, he has found a way to plug holes left by free agency and injuries.

Babich isn’t the anti-hero in the grand scheme of things. It is only when you compare his performance to that of Ron Rivera that the real disappointment happens.

Rivera was the golden child, but he shone too brightly for the Bears, and threatened to rock the chain of command. That is why he is gone.

Babich as a replacement hasn’t proved to be the right answer. As a result, Smith will be calling the plays even though Babich still has the coordinator title.

Smith lost confidence in his protégé, who coached under him with St. Louis before coming over to the Bears, because of last season’s repeated failures.

Long line of defensive minds

It isn’t like this defense to fail, at least not when you consider where it comes from.

Babich studied under Lovie Smith. Smith learned his craft from Tony Dungy, the architect of the Tampa-2 version of the Cover-2 defense. Dungy was tutored by Monte Kiffin, Chuck Noll, and Dennis Green.

Failing, when these guys have taught you everything they know, is a slap in the face to the history of defensive football.

That is why Smith is so adamant that the defense return to form this season.

“I don’t think anything will change as far as our philosophy on winning football games,” Smith said earlier this preseason. “We have to be able to play great defense; not good defense, great defense. And we plan on doing that.”

To assist with that plan, former Detroit Lions head coach Rod Marinelli was brought on board.

Lions loss is Bears gain

Despite the snickers that came with that announcement following Marinelli’s disaster of a season in the Motor City, the hiring is a solid win for the Bears.

Marinelli expands the Dungy brain trust in Chicago, having spent six seasons as the defensive line coach under him.

Plus Marinelli is going to bring back the pass rush, an area where Chicago stumbled last season, recording only 28 sacks, and worse, forcing only 10 fumbles.

Stripping only 10 balls from the opponents is a far cry from the 20 that led them to the Super Bowl in 2006.

While the Lions were not a success under Marinelli, the coach will bring a new attitude to the front line, which will help ease some of the pressure the rest of the defense felt trying to cover for the lack of a rush.

After all, this the man that helped Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice become stars in Tampa. Without Marinelli, both players have struggled to have the same success that they had with him as their coach.

It just remains to be seen what he can do with the Bears' crop of young pass rushers.

As when Smith arrived in Chicago five years ago, there will be doubts that a change of faces will help to improve things, especially given the recent history of those mugs.

But Smith proved that he knew what he was doing before. With the hiring of Marinelli and the change in Babich’s role, the head coach is taking a chance, hoping that he can turn the strength of the team around.

And maybe he will make his mentors proud in the process.


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