Nick Roach knows all about being in the starting lineup. During a stellar career at Northwestern, he trotted out with the first team 32 times.
But since reaching the pros in 2007, it has been a little more difficult for Roach to make his mark. And although he has often said that he's content in a backup role with the Bears until the time is right, Roach could hardly contain his excitement Sunday as he took to the field in place of Hunter Hillenmeyer at strong-side linebacker.
"I got the assignment late last week," Roach said in the locker room Sunday after the Bears defeated the Lions 27-23 at Soldier Field. "It helped me to make a quick mental transition from the relaxation of the bye week to the realization that I had to be on top of my game against Detroit [on] Sunday."
Hillenmeyer has been bothered recently by a thumb injury that was healing slower than the veteran would have liked. But taking things in stride, he expressed complete confidence in Roach's ability to take over.
"Nick's always been a hard worker," Hillenmeyer said. "I wanted to be in there today, but when that wasn't possible, I wasn't concerned about that linebacker position. He has the ability and the desire to become a real playmaker."
At the beginning of his first series, Roach was surprised but still confident. He hadn't expected that the speed of the plays would be so far beyond what he'd experienced in practice.
"I hadn't played at this level before," said Roach, who came to the league as an undrafted free agent with San Diego. "Somehow when you are with the first team, it seems so intense. Maybe it was just my perception at that moment, but the players definitely seemed to be moving faster. Hits were a lot harder, as well. There was need for an immediate adjustment in the way I played. I was able to up my game in fairly short order, but it was a shock initially."
Roach's stats against the Lions back up his assertion of a quick adjustment to his new role. He came away with three solo tackles and two assists – a respectable first effort. Although Roach also insisted that he "could have done better and will improve next time."
Defensive coordinator Bob Babich seemed satisfied with the role Roach played.
"He got in there, and he fought hard," Babich said. "That's all you can ask of a player who is stepping into a somewhat unfamiliar role. And it was much more difficult today due to Kyle [Orton]'s injury. Something like that can throw everybody on the team off of their game. But Nick concentrated on his job. He reached down and did what he had to do."
Babich cited the key role of the defense in finishing out what could have become an unpleasant conclusion to the game.
"It was not an easy game by any stretch of the imagination, The Lions came in there tough," Babich said. "They showed us more or less what we had expected them to, but they did have success offensively at times. We let them get away from us a little. There was a momentum shift after the first quarter. I felt that things were slipping away, particularly near halftime when the Lions had 23 unanswered points on the board. Clearly, it was time for some adjustments."
When asked exactly what those adjustments were Roach was understandably vague, saying only that he "wouldn't be the one giving up any team secrets." But he did admit that the defensive players "felt that it was gut-check time."
"You do what you need to do "Roach said. "That means not letting anything or anyone get by you. [Lions quarterback Dan] Orlovsky had considerable success in the air. [Rudi] Johnson and [Kevin] Smith got by us a few times. We knew in those last few minutes that it was up to us to make the stops."
With 1:04 left on the clock in the fourth quarter and the Bears clinging to a 27-23 lead, Orlovsky moved the Lions down the field with precision and efficiency.
"They were well into our territory, and they had time to make some plays," Roach said. "We knew we had to dig in and complete this game. Blitz, pass rush – whatever worked to get the ball back. We were on edge. I know my adrenaline was definitely pumping, "
Orlovsky's final heave of the afternoon – to sensational sophomore Calvin Johnson, who had already recorded a touchdown – could have stolen the game for Detroit, but the football fell harmlessly to the ground. Game over. Bears win.
"What an experience," Roach said. Total exhaustion, and at the same time, complete elation. It was great to be a part of that."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Chicago Bears for eight years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.
Roach Fills In for Hillenmeyer at LB
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