LAKE FOREST – At age 24, Stephen Paea is almost four decades younger than Rod Marinelli.
Yet it is the 63-year-old Marinelli who lights a fire under his young defensive tackle.
“His love for the game is tremendous,” Paea said while trying to catch his breath after practice this week at Halas Hall. “I haven’t seen anybody that die-hard [about] football. He’s a fan of the game, he loves the game, and he coaches it. Mentally, he is ready every day. If our leader of our defense does that, we’re trying to be like him.”
The Bears are doing Marinelli proud.
No matter the measurement, Marinelli’s group has emerged as one of the NFL’s best defenses in the first five weeks of the season. The Bears are sixth in total defense, first in defensive touchdowns (5), first in interceptions (13), tied for first in sacks (18) and tied for eighth in forced fumbles (5) as they enter their Week 6 bye.
Much of the coaching credit belongs to Lovie Smith, a defensive-minded leader who has preached the importance of takeaways and defensive touchdowns since he arrived in 2004. But Smith is eager to share the credit with Marinelli, his top defensive lieutenant whose college and NFL coaching career has spanned 36 years.
Smith hired Marinelli in 2009 as the Bears’ defensive line coach and promoted him to defensive coordinator the following season. He knew Marinelli well from their days together on Tony Dungy’s coaching staff with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where Smith coached linebackers and Marinelli coached the defensive line.
Both arrived in Tampa Bay in 1996 and spent five seasons together before Smith was hired as the St. Louis Rams defensive coordinator in 2001. Marinelli remained with the Buccaneers until 2006, when the Detroit Lions named him as head coach.
Sixteen years after their first job together, Smith and Marinelli remain tight.
“I couldn’t do Rod justice by saying just one thing that he does,” Smith said. “He does so much. Again, I know I talk about this always, [but] I’ve known him so long and I’ve seen him in every situation. He’s just a great man, great coach, great leader.
“We could spend the rest of the day talking about him. He’s such a valuable part of what we’re doing here.”
Marinelli has fond memories of joining Dungy’s staff in 1996. Monte Kiffin was there. So was Herm Edwards. All enjoyed long and successful coaching careers.
The only members of that group still coaching in the NFL are Smith and Marinelli.
Today, as in 1996, they instill the “Tampa 2” defense into their players. The system relies on a 4-3 scheme with a middle linebacker who can drop into pass coverage.
“We just learned it from the floor up together, trying to understand it and see it, the details that go into the system,” Marinelli said. “I mean, people [say] it’s a simple system. Not really. …
“I think it’s the real belief, we have a great belief in what we do and how we do things. I kind of grew up in it with coach Dungy, and [Smith’s] belief obviously is very strong in it. I think we’ve always been tied to the system and how to do things.”
It’s a system that players respect and embrace, just as they do Marinelli.
“He’s a great coach,” said Julius Peppers, a seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end. “He’s a great teacher of the fundamentals of the game. He’s been around for a long time. He’s coached some of the greats.”
He’s not finished yet.