Roquan Smith

As Bears enter season-tipping game, four ascending players could key win over Vikings

As Bears enter season-tipping game, four ascending players could key win over Vikings

The Bears, sure, haven’t beat anyone good. Their best win is over the 5-5 Seattle Seahawks, and the combined record of the six teams they’ve defeated is 19-38. 

But it’s also true that the Minnesota Vikings haven’t beat anyone good in 2018 either. Their best win came against the 4-5 Philadelphia Eagles, and the combined record of the five teams they’ve beat is 14-33.

The Vikings have lost to the Bills (3-7), Rams (9-1) and Saints (9-1), while the Bears have lost to the Packers (4-5-1), Dolphins (5-5) and Patriots (7-3). All this is to say: One of these two teams will get their best win of 2018 on Sunday night. 

And the Bears have shown plenty of signs over the last few weeks that they have a strong chance of emerging from a critical battle for the NFC North with a win. These four players are among the biggest reasons why:

1. Roquan Smith

The report: There’s little questioning the connection between Smith missing all but about a practice and a half of training camp/preseason and the No. 8 overall pick’s slow start to the regular season, but he’s come on strong as of late. Smith has 12 tackles in his last two games, providing big-time run support to mute the production of LeSean McCoy and Kerryon Johnson, and he sacked Matthew Stafford last weekend, too. 

He’s playing with a certain quickness that perhaps was lacking in the first eight weeks of the season, and it’s clear the game is slowing down for him, allowing him to make plays with his physicality and sideline-to-sideline athleticism. 

“He’s getting better and better every day and not just every game,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I see better things in practice, just little things, processing quicker, executing his job crisper and more quickly, if that’s such a word, and he’s getting better every day.”

The matchup: The Vikings’ offense hasn’t got running back Dalvin Cook rolling since he returned from a balky hamstring in Week 9. His explosive rushing ability provides a different dynamic for the Vikings’ offense, and getting him going would make things far easier for Kirk Cousins, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. While Eddie Goldman and Akiem Hicks are critical for the Bears’ run-stuffing efforts, it’ll be Smith and Danny Trevathan who may need to step up to keep him from ripping off a big-chunk play, as he did with a 70-yard dash against the Lions two weeks ago. 

“He’s strong but explosive,” Fangio said. “He can break the big run. He had a 70-yarder here recently against (Detroit) so he’s a threat to go the route all the time. He’s a really good all-around player.”

2. Anthony Miller

The report: Miller’s breakout game against Detroit (five catches, 122 yards, 1 TD) had been coming for weeks — he just needed Mitch Trubisky to connect with him when he ran open. That finally happened against the Lions. His chemistry with Trubisky is becoming apparent, and he’s combining his route-running savviness with increased experience to consistently find openings in whatever defense is in front of him. 

“He's slowly starting to fit into what we see him being down the road here,” coach Matt Nagy said. “And so any way we can get him the ball we're going to try to do that.”

The matchup: Miller primarily plays in the slot, running 71 percent of his offensive snaps from that position. Against the Vikings, he’ll face off against slot corner Mackensie Alexander, who’s allowed 28 receptions on 34 targets for 303 yards, good for 10.8 yards/reception, and a passer rating of 103.8 according to Pro Football Focus (for a slot corner comparison, scroll down for the Bryce Callahan section of this article). The Bears have a matchup edge here, so long as Trubisky is able to take advantage of it. 

3. Bryce Callahan

The report: Forget about the offseason price tag of Callahan, an impending free agent, going up by the game. The 27-year-old is playing spectacular football, holding opposing receivers to 28 receptions 38 targets (73.7 percent) for 219 yards (7.8 yards/reception) and a passer rating of 74.3 when he’s thrown at, per PFF. Perhaps making those numbers more impressive — of the 10 incompletions when passes are thrown his way, five were pass break-ups and two were interceptions. On top of all that, he has two sacks, two quarterback hits and seven hurries this year, good for 11 total pressures — more than double the next-highest total for a cornerback (Arizona’s Budda Baker has five). He’s playing at a Pro Bowl level. 

“There are a lot of little things that he’s mastered and can go to the next level as far as reading and dissecting routes and knowing how to play them, maybe playing them a half-second quicker than he did two years ago,” Fangio said. “Those things start to add up.”

The matchup: Adam Thielen can play both inside and outside, but has played the majority of his 586 snaps from the slot (53 percent). While he won’t be exclusively matched up against Callahan, the two former undrafted free agents will go against each other in a battle of strength vs. strength. Thielen already has 947 yards on 78 receptions, and until Minnesota’s Week 9 win over the Detroit Lions had eight consecutive games with at least 100 receivers yards (he’s also caught a touchdown in six consecutive games). Cousins has a passer rating of 119.2 when throwing Thielen’s way, too. If Callahan can win this matchup, it’ll be massive for the Bears’ chances on Sunday. It’s worth noting two of Cousins’ five interceptions have come when throwing Thielen’s way. 

“Both of those receivers with Thielen and Diggs, they're just very natural receivers,” Nagy said. “They have excellent hands, great route runners, they understand how to beat zones and then Kirk throwing the ball to them, he's been doing it for a long time, he's extremely accurate, he's tough, he finds different ways to get the ball to those guys.”

4. Mitch Trubisky

The report: On one hand, Trubisky lit up the Lions’ defense for 355 yards on 23/30 passing with three touchdowns and an additional rushing score. On the other hand, the Lions’ defense is awful, and the Vikings will bring a stout group to Soldier Field on Sunday night. The thought being: Trubisky still needs to prove himself against a good defense. 

But Nagy explained why what Trubisky did against Detroit didn’t necessarily have anything to do with Matt Patricia’s side having one of the league’s worst defenses. Specifically: Miller easily beat a blown coverage for a touchdown, but what Trubisky did to get him the ball translates against any defense. 

“Find an open guy and throw it to him,” Nagy said. “That's what we did. He has a progression. He has a progression. And so whether it's a blown coverage or a wide receiver runs a good route and beats a guy, as long as he's sticking within that progression and going from one, two, three, maybe four, or one, two, three, to run, etc., as long as he stays within that we're good.”

The matchup: A year ago, in primetime against the Vikings, Trubisky was baited into throwing a late-game interception by safety Harrison Smith, which led to a Kai Forbath game-winning field goal. Smith remains one of the very best safeties in the NFL, with three interceptions this year while allowing a passer rating of 66.1 when he’s targeted, according to PFF. 

“I think I’ve grown a lot since that play,” Trubisky said. “I’m not the same player, not even close. I’ve got better since that instance and I’m excited for the opportunity this weekend.”

Still, Trubisky will have to be aware of Smith at all times. Smith is one of those guys who epitomizes the Vikings’ ability to win close games — a been-there, done-that kind of guy. 

“He’s kind of like “Where’s Waldo?” He’s everywhere,” Nagy said. “And there’s several safeties in this league that are like him, where guys that can come down, play in the box, guys that blitz — very similar to (Jamal Adams). So he’s gonna be everywhere and he’s good at what he does. Harrison’s made consecutive Pro Bowls. We were with him in the Pro Bowl and he can play post-safety, play high, take care of the pass game. He’s got good ball skills. He can hit you hard. He can cover. It’s one of the reasons they’re a top defense. “ 

Bears see Roquan Smith improving, but he’s not ‘there’ yet 

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Bears see Roquan Smith improving, but he’s not ‘there’ yet 

Roquan Smith racked up a career high 13 tackles in the Bears’ blowout win over the Buffalo Bills, which on the surface looked like the best game of the rookie’s career. 

His position coach, though, had a different thought on his pupil’s productive afternoon. 

“I don’t know if he’s had a complete, best game yet,” inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires said. “I think the process is still going. He’s learning, he’s hard on himself, as I am, and it’s all about the consistency. The flashes are okay, but the consistency, that’s the key.”

The Bears are seeing growth from Smith, but he hasn’t played like the defensive rookie of the year candidate some pegged him to be prior to the season. He’s missed eight tackles — one per game, which includes his minimal use in Week 1 — and is averaging 7.1 tackles per miss, according to Pro Football Focus. Danny Trevathan, comparatively, is averaging 15.3 tackles per miss, one of the better averages in the NFL. 

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, though, is seeing Smith make improvements given where he started — or, more accurately, didn’t start the season. 

“You gotta remember the guy missed all of training camp, got no preseason reps so he’s a guy that should steadily improve week to week and he has been,” Fangio said. 

Smith, specifically, has made strides in run defense — specifically, being where he needs to be and using his speed and physicality to bring down opposing running backs. That’s how he was able to rack up those 13 tackles against the Bills. His speed, instincts and physicality all showed up when he, after blitzing up the middle, sprinted to the sideline to help Eddie Jackson force a fumble the safety returned for a touchdown on Sunday. 

But the Bears want to see Smith do better in pass defense. Nathan Peterman hit the longest completion of his career when tight end Jason Croom ran across Smith’s face and beat him to the edge for a 26-yard gain on Sunday, a play Pires said can be corrected with Smith having better leverage and tackling better, too. 

Those are the areas in which the Bears need to see Smith improve over the season’s final eight games. He has the effort, athleticism, football I.Q. and drive to be a great player — which is why he was the eighth overall pick — but if he can put it all together this year, it’ll provide a nice boost for the Bears’ chances of making a legitimate run at the playoffs. 

“I feel like I’m doing pretty solid,” Smith said. “There’s always room for improvement and trying to get up on my weaknesses and my mistakes that I make week in and week out, just try to eliminate those and strive for perfection, even though that’s not possible, just getting better each and every day.”

How Danny Trevathan is playing an important part in Roquan Smith's development

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How Danny Trevathan is playing an important part in Roquan Smith's development

Roquan Smith began his Bears career with a highlight, sacking DeShone Kizer as part of that magnificent (but ill-fated) first half against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 1. Since then, though, the rookie inside linebacker has been sort of anonymous within a dominant Bears’ defense.
 
And that’s been fine — fellow inside linebacker Danny Trevathan won NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Seattle Seahawks, and the outstanding play of Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and the rest of the Bears’ front seven has helped give the No. 8 overall pick a soft landing in the NFL.
 
But make no mistake, inside linebackers coach Glenn Pires stressed. Smith’s time is coming.
 
“I’m just so positive and so excited about where he is right now,” Pires said. “I hope it’s — sky’s the limit. I mean, he’s got so many great, great qualities and he’s just like a little flower that hasn’t even bloomed yet. It’s small. It’s got so much more to go. I’m looking forward to it.”
 
An important factor in Smith’s development, and play within the Bears’ defense, has been the strides made by Trevathan over the course of 2018.
 
It’s worth noting that Trevathan didn’t participate in OTAs or minicamps in 2017, which would’ve been his second year in Vic Fangio’s defense, after suffering a torn patellar tendon in November of 2016. While it was admirable and impressive that Trevathan made it back for training camp and was a Week 1 starter last year, missing those springtime reps robbed him of an important learning opportunity.
 
So that Trevathan was healthy and a regular participant during this year’s offseason program was critical for his own growth. And while Smith being present for the same practices in May and June was beneficial for his knowledge of the defense, too, he missed the entirety of training camp and barely practiced after ending his holdout in mid-August. That’s where Trevathan’s much-improved knowledge of Fangio’s defense is important for Smith.
 
“You cannot put a value and put a number on those days that he missed,” Pires said. “It’s funny because we get done with OTAs and we sit down as a staff and talk about guys and everything else, and after this past OTAs, we looked at Danny Trevathan — probably one of the most-improved guys we got in terms of him understanding and playing. You can’t be a leader if you don’t know what you’re doing. He now has a greater understanding of what we doing and now the leadership role keeps on going up. It’s been great for him.”
 
Trevathan hit home for two sacks and forced a fumble in Week 2 against the Seahawks, and picked off Jameis Winston in the Bears’ blowout win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But beyond the production, what Pires has been pleased with has been what Trevathan has done before the snap — specifically with Smith.
 
“You see them in games, they’re always communicating and talking,” Pires said. “I put so much weight on watching before the ball is snapped how much they’re talking to each other, how much they’re communicating with each other because so much is won before the ball is snapped and Danny has done a great job.”
 
The Bears’ defense proved to be the best in the NFL through the first four weeks of the season, but all great defenses have to adapt and evolve as a season goes on. And the growth expected by Bears coaches from Smith, with the aid of Trevathan, could be a reason why this defense stays on top of the league from Week 5 to Week 9 to Week 13 to Week 17.