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Despite great start, Bears defensive coordinator isn’t satisfied

Bears cornerback Tim Jennings celebrates with Brian Urlacher (54) Major Wright (21) after his interceptilate game sealed Chicago Bears 23-6

Bears cornerback Tim Jennings celebrates with Brian Urlacher (54) and Major Wright (21) after his interception late in the game sealed the Chicago Bears 23-6 victory over the St. Louis Rams Sunday September 23, 2012 at Soldier Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 6, 2012 6:33AM

Bears players were enjoying a glorious performance that epitomized what Lovie Smith’s defense is all about — not only five interceptions against a quarterback with the third-highest passer rating in NFL history, but two of the picks returned for touchdowns that fueled a 34-18 victory over the Dallas Cowboys on ‘‘Monday Night Football.’’

But defensive tackle Stephen Paea couldn’t help but notice that defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli still wasn’t happy.

‘‘It was just crazy watching him,’’ Paea said. ‘‘Even though it was a big win, we had five turnovers and all that, he was just mad at us. He thought we could have done so much better as a pass rush. He wants us to get better — not only as a team but individually.’’

As ‘‘crazy’’ as it might have looked, Paea and every other Bears defensive player knows exactly where Marinelli is coming from.

‘‘He’s never satisfied,’’ Paea said, ‘‘which is good.’’

This is no time to be satisfied.

‘‘Once you think you’ve arrived, you’ve lowered your standards,’’ Marinelli said. ‘‘You’ve stopped growing, and your standards shrink.’’

In Smith’s ninth season as Bears coach, his signature cover-2 defense is enjoying a renaissance that is as impressive as it is unexpected. A defense thought to be only as strong as its 30-and-over core suddenly is looking younger, faster, smarter and better-coached.

‘‘If you didn’t know how old we were, you wouldn’t know how old we were if you watched our film,’’ linebacker Brian Urlacher said. ‘‘Age is just a number. We play well together. We’ve been in the system for a long time. We know where to go, where our teammates are going to be, and it allows us to play faster.’’

The Bears’ defense leads the NFL in takeaways (14) and is third in sacks (15). The defense has allowed only 54 points in four games and has scored 21, for a net of 33 points allowed — tied with the Houston Texans for No. 1 in the NFL.

The Bears’ success is real, but it’s worth pointing out that the NFL schedule has played a part in it. Last year, when the Bears were 17th in total defense, they played eight of their first 10 games against top-10 scoring offenses, including the Green Bay Packers (No. 1), New Orleans Saints (No. 2), Detroit Lions (No. 4) twice and Carolina Panthers (No. 5).

This season, each of the Bears’ four opponents is ranked 20th or lower in points scored — the Indianapolis Colts (22nd), Packers (20th), St. Louis Rams (26th) and Cowboys (31st). And though things could change, it’s unlikely the Bears’ defense will face the degree of difficulty it faced last year.

The trick now is not just to maintain it, but to improve upon it.

‘‘We’re constantly talking about strip attempts, stripping the ball,’’ Marinelli said. ‘‘You have to be constantly aware. It’s got to be on your mind every second — because that’s who we are. We’ve got to go in and stop the run and take the ball away somehow, some way.’’

The Bears thrive on turnovers. It’s when they start depending on them that they get in trouble.

‘‘They come in bunches,’’ linebacker Lance Briggs said.

Can the Bears survive when the well dries up?

‘‘Of course,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘Just because we have a lot of turnovers this year doesn’t mean we’re not playing disciplined football. We play disciplined football every year.’’

The difference this season is that with Paea, Henry Melton and Amobi Okoye, the Bears are stronger at defensive tackle than they’ve been since Tommie Harris’ heyday. Inside pressure is more valuable to the cover-2 than even Urlacher at his best. (When Harris suffered an injury in 2006, the Bears’ defense was never the same.) And when the inside ‘‘rush men’’ are healthy, it’s a strength that usually has staying power.

Right, Rod Marinelli?

“Yes, but that’s still fleeting every week,’’ he said. ‘‘You’ve got to do it. But you’ve got to make the quarterback throw just a little bit sooner than he wants to. It’s just effort and attitude and how you set certain things up. You’ve got to be [on] point every week.”

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