It’ll be difficult for the Bears’ defense to sustain the mesmerizing level of success it had in 2018. But difficult does not mean impossible.
And Roquan Smith could be one of the key reasons why the Bears’ defense doesn’t experience a significant regression, if a regression at all.
“I think there are guys that have a feel, a natural feel. Roquan’s definitely one of those guys,” inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said.
Smith is a natural at his inside linebacker perch, a guy who can blend instincts with speed with physicality — all the traits teams crave in an off-ball linebacker. What Smith lacked as a rookie was experience: Specifically, experience practicing in training camp. He barely participated in practices last July and August due to a lengthy holdout and then an injury suffered shortly after signing his contract.
And yet, Smith still totaled 121 tackles, five sacks, one interception, four pass break-ups and eight tackles for a loss. So the Bears enter 2019 confident Smith can take a significant step forward with the benefit of a full year of playing experience — and a full offseason of practice.
“He plays very fast,” DeLeone said. “I think he’s unbelievable at seeing it pre-snap, understanding formations, understanding splits, mastering his technique and then playing fast after the ball is snapped.”
These ongoing OTA practices have been DeLeone’s first up-close look at how Smith moves with a ball on the field, though he spent time scouting him while serving as the Kansas City Chiefs’ inside linebackers coach last year (prior to that, DeLeone was on Andy Reid’s staff in a variety of roles beginning from 2013-2017).
It’s far too early for anyone on the Bears’ new defensive coaching staff to project how a player could be used in the regular season, though Smith’s knack for pass rushing should be of some use in Chuck Pagano’s more blitz-heavy scheme.
The transition to that new defense, too, hasn’t phased Smith.
“There are only so many things you can do on defense, so it’s not like he can create an entire new ball or whatever,” Smith said. “Ball is ball.”
Pagano’s evaluation of Smith, too, backed up that comfort conveyed by the former eighth overall pick: “The guy doesn’t make mistakes,” Pagano said.
It’s certainly encouraging that the NFL’s reigning top defense has a former top-10 pick entering his second year as a pro. Those are the kind of players who can help sustain success for quite a long time.
And so far, this coaching staff’s first impression of Smith hasn’t done anything to diminish that optimistic thought.
“(If) he just keeps playing that way, we’re going to be in good shape,” DeLeone said of what he’s seen from Smith so far. “He’s a really, really good player. I love watching him play, I love the energy he brings to practice every day. He’s just a joy to coach.”