One of the feel-good stories of the Bears 2019 season is the ascent of linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, the career-backup-turned-starter for a variety of reasons this year.
His first run with the starters came in Week 4 against the Vikings when he filled in for Roquan Smith, who was deactivated shortly before the game for still undisclosed personal reasons. Kwiatkoski responded with eight tackles and a sack and was highlighted as one of Chicago's bright stars from the 16-6 victory.
He returned to his reserve role for several weeks until Danny Trevathan's elbow injury in Week 9. In Week 10 against the Lions, Kwiatkoski enjoyed the best day of his career. He recorded another eight tackles, one sack and an interception on Thanksgiving, and was Pro Football Focus' highest-graded linebacker for the week.
Kwiatkoski's play has remained steady over the last four games as a starter, and with his rookie contract set to expire at season's end, he's proving to the Bears and the rest of the NFL that he deserves a significant pay raise.
Even in limited action this season, Kwiatkoski is fifth on the Bears in tackles (52) and has the second-highest PFF grade among starters on Chicago's defense (79.8).
Week 15's rivalry game against the Packers may be Kwiatkoski's most challenging of the season, however. It'll mark the first time this year that he won't have either Smith (who's out for the season with a torn pec) or Trevathan (who's still recovering from his elbow injury) lined up next to him. Instead, it'll be little-known Kevin Pierre-Louis.
Kwiatkoski, who appeared on Ian Rapoport's "Rapsheet + Friends" podcast this week, acknowledged what Smith's absence means to the defense.
"He's a guy who flies around, does a great job of communicating and just an all-around very good football player," Kwiatkoski said. "As for this past game, Kevin Pierre-Louis did a great job of coming in on short notice. He played really well. Guys like me and guys like him, we just have to step up."
Kwiatkoski told Rapoport that the Bears' three-game winning streak is a product of the team's "all eyes on the next game" approach. But what about that expiring contract?
"I haven't really thought about it," he said. "There's a lot of football to be played here. It's definitely in the back of my mind, but I really haven't given it that much of a thought yet."Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.