Two years ago, Mitch Unrein was looking for a job after being cut by the Chargers — though not for long. Now he’s a solid starter with the Bears, having the best season of his seven-year career. And he knows there’s no secret to his success.
“You know what? Akiem’s getting doubled every play. Eddie’s getting doubled every play. So I’m getting a lot of one-on-one opportunities,” said Unrein, referring to defensive line mates Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman. “Those guys are taking a lot of the pressure.”
The 30-year-old Unrein is the quintessential “lunch-pail kid,” as defensive line coach Jay Rodgers calls him. He’s a try-hard guy who learns well, pays attention to detail, knows he’s got to be technically perfect and does his job — and even then needs to be in the right place at the right time.
Finally, he is there, in his third season under Vic Fangio, playing beside two players having Pro Bowl-caliber seasons in a defense that is growing together into a top-10 unit in the league. Unrein, who has 20 tackles, a half-sack, two quarterback hits and a tackle for loss in eight games, is more than just a beneficiary. He’s starting because he makes his teammates better, as well.
“I knew when he was available [after getting cut by the Chargers] it was a no-brainer how he can multiply a room,” said Rodgers, who coached Unrein for four years with the Broncos. “And it’s been true, because we’ve gotten better with him in the room. Eddie’s gotten better. Akiem’s gotten better. Jon Bullard’s gotten better. Everybody’s gotten better. I’m not saying it’s all because of Mitch, but there’s a factor there. He allows those guys to play fast.”
Unrein exemplifies the improvement the Bears have made this season — he’s not starting by default. Bullard, the 2015 third-round draft pick, appears ready to take off with more playing time. But he can’t unseat Unrein as the starter.
“He’s coming on, man,” Unrein said. “That’s the depth we have on the d-line. It doesn’t matter who’s out there, we’re going to be productive. I feel like we have a good room — guys playing for one another.”
A big part of the Bears’ hope to sustain their first-half progress on defense lies in having Unrein-Bullard combinations at every level. Jerrell Freeman was the Bears’ best inside linebacker last year. But his pectoral injury and now his 10-game suspension, while regrettable, aren’t eliciting any dread. Christian Jones is having the best year of his career for many of the same reasons as Unrein — comfort in a defense and playing with play-makers all around him.
“Last year when guys would go down, at some positions you didn’t have somebody of the same caliber who could play at a high level,” Unrein said. “This year I feel across the board, we’ve had some injuries and guys step in and are just as productive.
“It’s [a matter] of being in the defense a little bit longer, knowing your role a little bit better, and playing for one another. I think we’re a very close-knit group — always hangin’ out; always doing stuff out of the office. That’s really helped us take the next step.”
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