The thing we’ve all been waiting for since April of 2018 seems to finally be coming together: Roquan Smith is playing at a high, Pro Bowl-type level.
Maybe even an All-Pro level, an expectation that’s been had for the former eighth overall pick for a while now.
“Ultimately, I feel like he can be an All-Pro player,” Khalil Mack said at the start of training camp in 2019.
Entering Week 7, Smith is holding opposing quarterbacks to a 76.3 passer rating when throwing his way, third-lowest among three-down inside linebackers (defined here as ‘backers who’ve played at least 80 percent of their team’s defensive snaps in 2020).
Yet none of those inside linebackers have been targeted as much as Smith (37); only one of them is allowing fewer yards per reception than Smith (6.4).
“You just see the growth in coverage,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “Last week, dropping, making a play on the tight end. Definitely feel very, very confident in him playing backs out of the backfield, matching up with tight ends and things like that.”
Smith allowed passer ratings of 89.8 and 86.1 when targeted in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The growth Pagano talked about is real, showing up both on tape and in the box score.
Smith’s Week 6 game against the Carolina Panthers arguably was the best of his pro career. He broke up a pass intended for tight end Chris Manhertz – the play Pagano referenced – and spectacularly read and reacted to a screen to running back Trenton Cannon, using his smarts to quickly identify the play, his athleticism to avoid a block by guard Chris Reed and his physicality to drop Cannon for a four-yard loss.
Entering Week 6, Carolina’s Mike Davis was second among NFL running backs in yards, targets and receiving yards. Smith held him to two catches on two targets for three yards; combined with his play on Cannon, the Panthers averaged -0.3 yards per play when throwing to running backs covered by Smith.
Smith also had a critical pressure of Teddy Bridgewater on a third-and-goal in the second quarter that helped force an incompletion, leading to a Panthers field goal.
Smith does need to be consistently better against the run. While he played fast and physical against Carolina, he had some egregious missed tackles in Week 5’s win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Those do need to be cleaned up for Smith to truly hit an All-Pro level, especially with guys like Derrick Henry and Aaron Jones still ahead on the schedule.
But the things Smith can do in coverage are already paying a massive benefit to the Bears’ defense. One of my preseason thoughts about this defense was that it was going to need Smith to take a significant step forward to reach its potential. We’re seeing that step forward, and we’re seeing the Bears’ defense – like Smith – start to reach its sky-high potential.