Bears LB Nick Kwiatkoski gets an opportunity to replace his mentor...for now

Bears LB Nick Kwiatkoski gets an opportunity to replace his mentor...for now

Of all the tips and advice given to Nick Kwiatkoski by veteran inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman, one stands out above the rest in the mind of the rookie linebacker.

“’Just be ready, no matter what happens,’” Kwiatkoski said of Freeman’s counsel. “’You can’t really control things so just stay on top of the game and be ready for anything.’”

Well, “anything” has happened, ironically perhaps, in the form of Freeman incurring a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Now the Bears and Kwiatkoski will find out how well the “be ready” advice took root.

Kwiatkoski is slotted as the starting inside linebacker alongside Danny Trevathan — in none other than Freeman’s spot. It marks the second time that Kwiatkoski will be called upon to step into the breach, having started at Dallas when Trevathan was injured.

That was a difficult situation. Kwiatkoski had missed virtually all of training camp and preseason with a hamstring injury, then was dropped into the starting lineup against an offense ranked No. 3 in yardage and No. 4 in points under rookie phenom quarterback Dak Prescott.

“I think the few snaps that the preseason and regular season, his first game in the regular season wasn’t so good,” said defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “But the snaps since then have been good. He’s been getting practice time. He missed most of camp, if not all of it, so the practice has been accumulating for him so I think he’ll be ready to go.”

[MORE: Bears don't view Jay Cutler's shoulder injury as season-ending]

Kwiatkoski played 18 snaps (26 percent) that game, made a tackle but was effective enough to rate added work the following week in the win over Detroit. His playing time jumped to 45 snaps (71 percent). Then Trevathan returned and was paired with Freeman, the team’s two leading tacklers.

Against the Giants he played no defensive snaps but was in for 21 on special teams, where he has made two solo tackles this season.

“The beginning of the season it definitely set me back for the first couple games,” Kwiatkoski said. “Since then I’ve been working my way back. Even when I was out I tried to stay mentally in the game and stay on top of things.”

While Freeman had emerged as a leader in the defensive huddle, Trevathan is projected to resume that role. Kwiatkoski’s role will be dictated in some measure by down and distance since he is not a member of nickel pass-rush packages. Still… .

“I just think he’s grown since the start of the season, since he’s started practicing,” Fangio said. “Prior to his [hamstring] injury he was struggling learning everything, fitting it all together. I think he’s gotten past that point. I think he’s got a better understanding of what we’re doing and what he has to do. We’ll find out.”

Kwiatkoski right now has the distinction of being the first of the three players the Bears selected in the fourth round of the 2016 draft while Prescott sat by his phone waiting for a call the Cowboys would finally make (using a compensatory pick, no less).

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

But the Bears have struck gold with fourth-round linebackers, most notably in 1999 when they landed Warrick Holdman and Rosevelt Colvin, the eventual outside linebackers flanking Brian Urlacher, Colvin going on to win two Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots.

Hall of Fame linebackers Harry Carson and Charles Haley were once fourth-rounders as well.

But Kwiatkoski, a teammate of Bears receiver Kevin White at West Virginia, obviously is thinking more of the lessons imparted by the man he’s replacing for the time being.

“It’s a huge opportunity,” Kwiatkoski said. “Jerrell is a great player, quarterback of the defense. Just got to keep it moving now. It doesn’t stop for anyone.”

(Too) Bold Predictions: Akiem Hicks' return to the Bears will be felt immediately. Literally.

(Too) Bold Predictions: Akiem Hicks' return to the Bears will be felt immediately. Literally.

(Too) Bold Predictions aims to take nuanced, well-researched information and use it to make wildly improbable predictions. Analysis! 

Cam Ellis

1. Akiem Hicks has a sack on the first series of the game
The Packers have the best pass-blocking unit in football, and Aaron Rodgers is averaging something like three seconds per dropback to throw. Still, there are going to be far more one-on-one matchups on the line because of his return, but I imagine the Packers' are still focused on stopping Khalil Mack first and foremost. With so much attention to both edges – because you'll remember Leonard Floyd is basically Khalil Mack against the Packers – Hicks is going to get some single-man looks. Hicks gets to Rodgers somewhere on the Bears' first defensive series, and the upset is off. 

2Kyle Fuller finally connects on jumping a route ... twice 
It feels like Fuller's been painfully close to a pick-six a bunch of times this season. There was the one in Denver, and in Los Angeles, and the latest came against Dak Prescott last Thursday night. I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting one or two also. At one point, he's going to connect, and the weirdest possible moment would be against a quarterback that doesn't throw interceptions that plays on a team that doesn't turn the ball over. We'll say only one goes for a touchdown, but if tomorrow gets weird, it's going to get weird. 

Rob Schaefer
1. Khail Mack logs three sacks in Akiem Hicks' return
Our long national nightmare is over. Akiem Hicks is back, and with him, could come an unleashing of Khalil Mack the likes of which we haven’t seen this season.

We’ve written about the impact of Hicks’ presence on Mack’s production before. The theory is simple: With another all-world talent eating up the inside of opponents’ offensive lines, teams have less capacity to focus extra attention on Mack. Granted, the Bears have gotten decent production along the line this season in the form of Nick Williams (six sacks), Roy Robertson-Harris (10 QB hits) and flashes of Leonard Floyd. But this week, the potential is there for their pass rush to return to its 2018 form, and that starts with Mack.

The Packers have the fourth-highest PFF pass block rating (79.4) in the NFL and Aaron Rodgers is notoriously slippery, which is what makes this prediction bold. But Mack has been trending up recently (two of his 7.5 sacks and six of his 13 QB hits have come in the Bears’ last three games). Perhaps the return of Hicks will push him to new heights.

2. David Montgomery has his 2nd 100+ yard rushing performance of the season.
If there’s a soft spot in this Packers defense, it’s in the heart of their front seven. On the outside, Preston and Za’Darius Smith are often used to edge-rush and contain — roles they’ve been effective in — but the two backers in the middle of their base 3-4, Blake Martinez and B.J. Goodson, both enter this one with average PFF grades (as do defensive ends Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster). Frank Clark is, admittedly, a beast, but again… Bold predictions.

As a team, the Packers allow the eighth-most rushing yards per game (122.8) in the NFL, and Matt Nagy has displayed intention in establishing the run as the season has worn on. With conditions set to be frigid and Montgomery coming off his third game with 20+ rush attempts of the season last week against Dallas, a breakout from him is plausible. 

The Packers beat a bad Bears team in Week 1. In Week 15, they'll get a totally new one.

The Packers beat a bad Bears team in Week 1. In Week 15, they'll get a totally new one.

All week, reporters at Halas Hall tried to get Matt Nagy and the Bears to compare who they were during Week 1’s game against Green Bay to where they are now. And all week at Halas Hall, Matt Nagy and the Bears wouldn't bite. 

“We're both different. They're a little bit different, we're different,” Matt Nagy said. “They did a great job both as players and their coaches, so like I said yesterday, it feels like a while ago and that's why you play. You have a 16-game season and in division you get two chances. We'll just do everything we can to put it behind us and try to be better.” 

Different might be an understatement. Gone are Kyle Long and Bobby Massie. The Starting-Center-James-Daniel experiment is over, and Mike Davis is playing in the NFC South now. Adam Shaheen and Trey Burton – though the latter didn’t play in Week 1 – are on IR, too. Normally, losing two starting tight ends, a ‘starting’ running back, and the entire right side of the offensive line means you’re spending the last month of the season scouting for 2020. Instead, the Bears head to Lambeau Field on Sunday with a path to the playoffs still in front of them. 

“I just feel like we’re kind of in a rhythm now. We’re a different team,” Mitch Trubisky said. “There were some things that we had to go through in the first game and the beginning of the season that just didn’t go our way, and there’s things we definitely learned from as an offense. 

“I just feel like we have a new-found identity of what we want to do and everybody is really locked into what they have to do within their job description on the offense.” 

Perhaps the biggest difference between Week 1 and Week 15 has been the play of Trubisky, who looked like he was headed for a clipboard in 2020 before regaining his form over the last month or so. His comfortability in the offense is night and day compared to some of the struggles he went through during the first half of the season. If you ask him – which, duh, we did – he’ll tell you he’s felt the most growth off the field. 

“I just would say mental toughness, the ability to block out things on the outside,” he said. “Adversity, obviously, early in the season with people talking on the outside and then having to play through injuries and stuff, and just coming together closer as a team. My teammates having my back, that really gives me the most confidence.” 

The 14-week turnaround isn’t all about confidence, as Nagy 202 has morphed into something not expected but effective nonetheless. The running game has stabilized and they’ve found successful plays out of 4 WR sets – even if one of those receivers is Montgomery/Tarik Cohen. In Week 1? Montgomery had six rushes and the Bears ran two plays out of 10 personnel. Nagy said that he thought something clicked on Trubisky’s touchdown pass to Ben Braunecker against the Lions. 

“There's something there,” he said. “We felt it a little bit in the Chargers game, we just weren't effective in the red zone. But because we won the [Lions] game it magnifies it a little bit more … And then we just kind of started putting things together and I think over time we've just felt like it's just started to click. I don't know if it's specifically one play or not but that's probably my best guess.” 

It couldn’t have come at a better time, as the team prepares for what Nagy calls a “cat-and-mouse” game against Packers’ defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who perhaps knows Trubisky better than any other opposing coordinator in the game. 

“Coach Pettine has done a great job throughout his career of being almost tendency-free,” he said. “And they’re even better now with how they deploy those guys, and it’s kind of a perfect, perfect storm of scheme and talent, and the guys on the back end help them out too.” 

The Bears are playing with a looseness that might come from essentially being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but oddly, it continues to work for them. And when you have to go play Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau with your season on the line, you don’t question what works. 

“I love it. You want to go against the best all the time,” said Akiem Hicks, who was taken off IR and will start on Sunday. “If you’re a true competitor, you want the best competition.”