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Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli a master motivator

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli watches defensive end SheMcClellwork drill during rookie minicamp May. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli watches defensive end Shea McClellin work on a drill during rookie minicamp in May. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Updated: November 11, 2012 6:45PM

Lovie Smith was criticized for his awkward handling of the defensive coordinator position in his first few seasons as head coach of the Bears. He chose to ‘‘not rehire’‘ Ron Rivera and promote linebackers coach Bob Babich after the 2006 Super Bowl season; after two years of regression, he replaced Babich with Lovie Smith in 2009.

But in retrospect, you have to give Lovie due credit — his first instinct was right. Rod Marinelli was his choice for defensive coordinator when Smith was hired in 2004. But Marinelli had two years remaining on his contract as defensive line coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And the Buccaneers refused to let Marinelli interview for a promotion.

It wasn’t until fate moved its huge hands — the Lions hired Marinelli as their head coach in 2006 and fired him after the 2008 season — that Smith finally was able to hire Marinelli as ‘‘assistant head coach/defensive line’’ in 2009.

Marinelli was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2010, but regardless of his position or his play-calling responsibilities, Marinelli’s impact can’t be overstated. It’s right there in black and white: the Bears lead the NFL with 28 takeaways, with a franchise-record seven defensive touchdowns and are second in the NFL in defensive points allowed with 13.0 per game.

And it’s no coincidence that Marinelli’s specialty — the defensive line — is making it happen. Julius Peppers is Julius Peppers. Israel Idonije is making a bigger impact with fewer snaps than he had in 2011. Rookie Shea McClellin is not yet a revelation, but more than a ‘‘situational’’ rusher.

And players who at some point previously were following in the footsteps of Dan Buzuin and Marcus Harrison suddenly are making plays reminiscent of Tommie Harris and Julius Peppers: defensive tackles Henry Melton and Stephen Paea, defensive end Corey Wootton.

Of course, it starts with Peppers. But it doesn’t end there. Last year, Peppers missed one play against the Lions and the Bears gave up a 73-yard touchdown pass. This year against the Lions at Soldier Field, the Bears held Peppers out for two series and, with a front four of McClellin, Wootton, Melton and Paea, forced two three-and-outs, holding the Lions to minus-two yards on eight plays.

That’s the Marinelli effect.

‘‘He’s as good as I’ve ever been around pro football players, motivating them and teaching the game of football,’’ Bears secondary coach Jon Hoke said.

Most coaches consider themselves as teachers and motivators. What separates Marinelli from the rest is his ability to teach and motivate with techniques that usually lead players to eventually tune them out: repetition, reprimand and refusing to be satsified with anything but unattainable perfection.

‘‘It doesn’t matter how good it is. It’s never good enough,’’ one veteran Bears defender said.

‘‘He always wants more,’’ another player said. ‘‘Those two weeks Lance [Briggs] and I got those interceptions, he was happy with the interceptions, but he wanted more strips. He wasn’t satisfied. They want more and more.’’

What might sound like lamentations are endorsements for Marinelli’s coaching style, from defensive end Israel Idonije and cornerback Charles Tillman.

‘‘It can get a little old doing the same thing every day. But he challenges us every single day,’’ linebacker Brian Urlacher said. ‘‘He tells us what we need to get better at and doesn’t let us relax.’’

From posters (Frank Leahy’s eight keys to good tackling) to anecdotes, famous quotes and sayings (‘‘Consistency is the truest measure of man’s mental toughness’’) to movies of animals in the wild, Marinelli finds a way to get his point across.

‘‘Good teachers are artists,’’ linebacker Nick Roach said. ‘‘He uses whatever he feels is necessary to get his point across. You never leave a meeting of his wondering what he expects.’’

‘‘The night before a game in our meetings at the hotel he’ll show us these videos called ‘Marinelli Madness,’’’ defensive tackle Stephen Paea said. ‘‘I always feel motivated after that. You want to go out in the game and start taking people’s heads off.’’

And it helps that it starts at the top. When a 34-year-old, eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker believes, it’s a lot easier for everyone else to fall in line.

‘‘He’ll make you run through [a] wall if you talk to him,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘He makes you think you can do stuff you can’t do. It’s fun playing for him. Every day he elevates us and challenges us to make more plays.’’

Maybe that’s why the Bears have had an uncanny knack for outdoing themselves this season. Their defense is being coached by Jimmy Piersall’s father — and they’re loving it.

So the game against the 7-1 Texans might not be the defining moment people think it is. This defense is in good hands. The only certainty is that, win or lose, Brian Urlacher & Co. will have a lot of work to do.

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