Defensive linemen Julius Peppers (No. 90) and Israel Idonije (No. 71) have… (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago…)
When Rod Marinelli joined the Bears coaching staff in 2009, one of his first initiatives was a name change. This wasn't the coach's Ochocinco moment—his name is still Rod Marinelli. Instead, down came "Defensive Line" from the meeting room door and up went his preferred moniker: "Rush Men."
The message was clear: Get the quarterback.
They have. In 2012, the Bears are tied for eighth in the league with 32 sacks, but 29 have come from the D-line, ranking them second to Cincinnati in that category.
But the Rush Men are more than just sack artists. As Israel Idonije said, "We're the Rush Men unit. We're our own little team on the team."
MEET THE RUSH MEN
After a Friday practice, the locker room at Halas Hall is like a freshman dormitory—rowdy, high-spirited and clothes EVERYWHERE. And while the whole room is boisterous, a rumble of laughter radiates from the back. This is the defensive line, a group that mixes playfulness with quiet and gives each young player a like-minded mentor.
Fourth-year pro Henry Melton, the unit's de facto social leader, explains the age breakdown: There are "the OLD guys," Julius Peppers and Idonije; the young guys; and then Melton and Matt Toeaina, the "mid guys."
And while Melton is the D-line's breakout performer, the unit still looks to the old guys for leadership. Peppers' influence comes not just from his eight Pro Bowls but from his note-taking and question-asking in meetings.
Idonije, meanwhile, is the unit's "front man," the Paul McCartney to Pep's John Lennon. And though Idonije had a steeper climb to NFL stardom, Peppers appreciates Izzy's role in creating the culture in the locker room.
"Peanut [Charles Tillman], Lance [Briggs], Lak [Brian Urlacher], Izzy have been here for a while," Peppers said. "The guys who have been around, they set that foundation. And the free agents like myself and the rookies that come in, it's already set, so you come in and you just fall in place."
"Obviously we're here to play football," Peppers said. "But being a professional and being a good person is more important in my eyes. Hopefully a little bit of it will rub off on them."
"Sometimes [Peppers and Idonije] forget that [they're] the leader," Stephen Paea said. "We're playing as one, so we don't say 'he's the big time guy. We should treat him different.' We all play as brothers, and that's why I think we're successful."
If there is a secret to the Rush Men's success beyond natural talent, it's their internalization of Marinelli's other motto: 4=1. The stars may be Peppers, Melton and Idonije, but in a given game, the line might see production from eight players.
"If we're rushing four, you want to move together as one," Melton said. "Just keeping [the quarterback] in a little bubble."
Keep a close eye on the line during a game and you'll see 4=1 at work. They use a variety of combinations, moving guys right or left, inside and out. Against Green Bay, for instance, Peppers recorded a sack from the tackle position. Also at tackle that play was defensive end Shea McClellin, while Melton, the NFC's leading vote-getter at tackle, was lined up at end.
"We mix it up," said Peppers. "Obviously if you have three ends in the game, somebody has to go inside. It's based on how we feel about the matchups in the game."
While the talent is there, it's the friendship and camaraderie that creates a working environment in which everyone is valued and no one takes offense to playing time.
"There's no ego here," Cheta Ozougwu said. "You know, 4=1. Whoever's out there, we just support each other."
It's not just hollow sentiment. When Idonije lost his starting job before the San Francisco game in favor of Corey Wootton, the only thing that changed for the veteran was his place on the depth chart.
"[Idonije is] definitely a great teammate," Wootton said. "I knew [his demotion] wouldn't be a big issue as far as us getting along. He still gets a lot of reps out there. [Against the 49ers] he got more reps than me."
Along with learning to be professionals, the Rush Men's young pups have inherited another crucial trait from their leaders: how to have fun.
"We're just like little kids," Paea said.
In the pranking arena, though, the young guys aren't close to Idonije, who pulled the gag of the year when he coordinated with the manager at Mastro's Steakhouse to present rookies Shea McClellin and Aston Whiteside with a dinner check totaling $38,000.
"Seeing Shea's face getting beet red when he saw that check, and him thinking he was going to have to pay 30, 40 thousand dollars for a dinner" was, according to new guy Nate Collins, the year's best gag. He then imitated McClellin's desperate pleas. "'Can someone help me out with this until tomorrow? I don't think I can put this much money on my card,'" Collins said with a laugh. "'No, you're a rookie. You gotta do it.'"
"The camaraderie and the chemistry is more important than a lot of people will understand," Peppers said. "You gotta care for one another to be able to perform and put out your max effort for your teammates.
"It's not like this everywhere. I've only been one other place, but I've heard stories and I know other guys around the league and trust me, it's not like this."
Peppers smiles as he talks about his teammates, and the strength of the Rush Men bond is evident whenever he or the others speak. As the Bears enter the stretch run this season, they would be well-served to follow the D-line's example: work hard, respect the game and have fun. The rest, as they say, will take care of itself.
Special contributor Jack M Silverstein covers the Bears for RedEye. Say hey @readjack.
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