As encouraging as some elements of the 2017 season was for the Bears defense, it wasn’t enough. Ranking in the top 10 in fewest points and yards allowed left linchpins like lineman Akiem Hicks setting “top five” as a declared goal.
With what has happened within the last 13 days – from the first preseason game vs. Baltimore through the long-anticipated arrival of Roquan Smith – the Bears have had arguably seen a handful of developments that could put “elite” within reach of a defense intent on being just that.
The developments have been the play of linebackers Kylie Fitts and Isaiah Irving, and now topped off by the Smith addition. The reasons are obvious – a linebacker-dependent defense (as all 3-4’s inherently are) has moved to the brink of realizing impact from not one, not two, but possibly three.
None is being given a leading role in an already good defense. But what they all represent are high-speed additions in a sport where speed rules and rivals pad-level in importance. Fitts and Irving have flashed off the edges, and Smith was the No. 8 pick of the draft for his speed in getting to targets, followed of course what he does to them when he gets there.
How any change occurs remains to play out, and Vic Fangio has used rotations in his front seven’s. One scenario could be Smith easing in as part of nickel packages, where the Bears have used a 4-2 front and would have Smith and Danny Trevathan as their ILB’s. Likewise, Fitts and Irving present edge options in that package as well as in base 3-4.
Understand: No criticism of any sort is directed at either of the incumbents. No knock on Nick Kwiatkoski, who has in two seasons and this training camp established himself as an NFL inside linebacker. Nor is it a diss of Sam Acho, who is a physical edge presence with some pass-rush pop. The Bears need both, REALLY need both.
But the 1983 Bears ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed with Al Harris as part of a linebacker corps that included Mike Singletary and Otis Wilson. Jim Finks drafted Wilber Marshall in the 1984 first round and Ron Rivera in the second. Harris remained the starter but the Bears also jumped to third in points allowed with Marshall and first the two years after that.
Hall of Fame defensive lineman Dan Hampton said years later that Marshall – nicknamed “Pit Bull”by teammates – was the single best individual player on that elite defense, and the player that took things to another level entirely. And as Marshall told Hall of Fame NFL writer Rick “Goose” Gosselin, who created the special-teams ranking system used by every NFL team and now hosts "Talk of Fame Radio:”
"They had Mike [Singletary] sitting on the sidelines when I’m playing middle linebacker on third down. So I wasn’t just a rush guy, like the guys on the end that you see them go 90 percent of the time."
Sounding like a bill of particulars for Smith.
Best guess that Smith – wearing the No. 58 that Marshall wore – will have a new level of impact for a defense that just added a piece with a chance to earn the designation of “elite.”
Fitts and Irving are younger, faster options on the edge. Fitts is bigger and faster (4.69 sec. 40) than Irving, but one can never be too rich, too thin or have too many edge rushers.
And Smith, who had 6.5 sacks last season at Georgia (his only credited sacks in three seasons there), projects to be the fastest Bears linebacker with a documented 4.51-sec. time in the 40 – faster than Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher and…well, you get the point.
And speed is the route to “elite.”