Idonije Emerging as a Top D-Tackle

The Chicago Bears look to finally be getting all they can out of Israel Idonije, who has emerged as a top defensive tackle after spending most of his career as a special-teams guy and reserve end. Beth Gorr caught up with Idonije in the locker room following Thursday's 27-24 overtime win over the Saints.

It seemed for a moment late Thursday in prime time that the Bears would recreate the frustrating scenario that has plagued this team all season: a strong first quarter followed by an adequate second quarter, and then a poor third quarter followed by a strong fourth-quarter comeback that would fall just short.

Last night, though, the Bears squeaked past the Saints with a 28-yard field goal from Robbie Gould on the last play of regulation followed by a 35-yard boot from the former Pro Bowler in overtime that delivered a 27-24 victory over the Saints, much to the relief of the team and its fans.

"We're still in the hunt," said defensive tackle Israel Idonije in the Soldier Field locker room after the game. "It would have been a very difficult situation for us if we had not been able to come back tonight at the end."

The Bears D had not been expected to do well against a high-powered New Orleans offense, more specifically versus MVP candidate Drew Brees and the passing game, but the stakes were high and Chicago's players remained confident.

"Every game has its own pressures," Idonije said, "but when you are in the situation where one loss means your season is done, you have so much more to play for. Our intensity was right in there. We knew that tonight was a make-or-break game for us."

With the Minnesota Vikings currently leading the division by half a game and holding all the conceivable tiebreakers, the Bears realize their playoff hopes are dim. But that doesn't mean the cause is hopeless.

"It's been a strange season," Idonije said. "We've had huge wins: the upset of the Colts in Game 1, for example. Then the next time out, we won't beat a [Panthers] team we're supposed to dominate. It's been a rollercoaster ride all year. But we still feel that our chances to reach the postseason are good. You have to believe that way. Otherwise, what would be the point of taking the field at all?"

The Bears (8-6) put extra pressure on themselves by losing 34-14 to the Vikings (8-5) in Week 13 at Minnesota, back when both teams were tied atop division at 6-5. As a result, Idonije and Co. will need some help down the stretch in order to suit up in January. The players, however, still believe that they control their own destiny.

"I realize what people are saying about us, that there's no way the Vikings will lose or that we will win enough to make it through, but that isn't how we see the situation at all," Idonije said. "We have a goal in mind, the same one that's been there all season. We intend to win out the remainder of our games and then move on to the next level."

After Sunday's contest, quarterback Kyle Orton singled out the defense as a whole for "playing one of their best games this season against one of the best offenses in the league. This was all done on a short week with little rest. We let the game slip away, but we came back in overtime. They did a great job."

But in Idonije's mind, the win was a complete team effort.

DT Israel Idonije
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

"That's just the way Kyle is, giving all the credit to everybody else but himself," he said. "But don't believe that. If you look at the stats, you'll see that this was a tremendous effort by our offense, by our special-teams guy and by the defense. And don't forget the fans. I've never had an experience where the ‘4th Phase' was so important. Look at the Saints' false-start penalties, their miscommunications. Everybody in the stands helped tremendously on that."

Idonije is satisfied with his current role on the team, although he's been rotated from special teams to defensive end to defensive tackle in recent years.

"No problem at all," he said of all the moving around, although he appears to have found a home as a D-tackle – he's playing both three technique and nose guard depending on who's sharing the field with him. "Luckily, I have a short learning curve and I feel at home pretty much anywhere on the field. I have full confidence in the coaches and in the fact that they will use me wherever I am productive."

This year, Idonije has been credited with 24 total tackles and 3.5 sacks, plus he's batted down several passes at the line of scrimmage when his pass rush has been neutralized.

"Guess I'm fortunate that I'm tall (6-6), relatively fast, and that I have a good vertical leap," he laughed. "That's particularly handy when I'm up against a smaller quarterback such as Brees."

Defensive coordinator Bob Babich agreed, but he went on the give Idonije even more praise.

"Sure, Izzy is physically accomplished," Babich said, "but he also has heart. He's very intelligent and has the drive to succeed. He'll do anything he can to get us a win. He is a very important component on this team."

Whether or not Idonije will get the opportunity to exhibit his skills in the postseason remains to be seen, but Babich for one is looking forward to working with the native Nigerian – he was born in Lagos before his family relocated to Brandon, Manitoba in Canada – for quite a while to come.

"I feel he has only begun to tap into his talents," Babich said. "What I see is a constant progression, where he improves on a weekly basis. Izzy is one of the people who gives us the chance to get a win like the one we've enjoyed tonight."

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.

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