CHICAGO — In the bright lights of the prominent Thursday night NFL season opener last September, Roquan Smith shot through a gap on the left side of the Green Bay offensive line and made a fine ankle tackle of Packers running back Aaron Jones for no gain.
On the next snap, Aaron Rodgers ran a play fake and Jones tried sneaking out of the back side of the formation for a screen pass, but Smith deftly avoided the block by center Corey Linsley and again tackled Jones for no gain.
The Packers faced third-and-10 just 30 seconds into the game, the first of seven third-and-7 or more situations Green Bay would have in a slog against the Bears defense. Consecutive snaps offered only a brief snapshot, but it sure presented evidence Smith, the eighth overall pick in 2018 who missed most of training camp his rookie season in a contract negotiation, was poised for a monster breakout season.
Smith’s strong start to 2019 — he was credited with 13 tackles the next week in a victory at Denver — wasn’t sustained. He missed the Week 4 game against the Vikings for personal reasons and didn’t record double-digit tackles again until Week 9. He picked up again later in the season with 16 tackles and two sacks in the Nov. 28 Thanksgiving Day victory at Detroit, but was injured (torn pectoral muscle) the following week against Dallas and missed the rest of the season.
Now healthy again, Smith and Danny Trevathan, who missed seven games himself because of injury, are back at the center of a Bears defense attempting to regain the dominant form of 2018 without nose tackle Eddie Goldman in the middle as a run-stuffing force.
Goldman’s decision to opt out, which players have uniformly supported, creates an immediate challenge for a run defense that dropped from the top in the league in 2018 to No. 9 a year ago and complicates matters for Smith and Trevathan as they attempt to hunt down ball carriers.
“Man, Eddie’s a huge part,” Trevathan said when asked to assess the loss. “Huge, huge, role to this defense. I kind of chatted with him this offseason a little bit. So, I kind of sensed (Goldman might opt out). Eddie is a hard worker. He never complains. He’s one of those guys who puts his head down and goes to work.
“To have him not here, we’re definitely missing a key part. But I think the guys that they brought in and they’re going to have to step up. They’re going to have to step up and it’s our job to push them each day to get to that level of play.”
The Bears — because Smith and Trevathan run so well — often leave both on the field in sub packages, instead removing a lineman to bring an extra defensive back on the field. Their ability to make plays from sideline to sideline gives coordinator Chuck Pagano expanded flexibility and makes the Bears formidable through the middle with free safety Eddie Jackson on the back end.
If the defense is to be great again, Smith and Trevathan will have to not only stay on the field this season, but elevate their level of play. Coaches have raved about the shape Smith arrived in following offseason rehabilitation — 234 pounds with more lean mass. Considering his movement skills, he’s fortunate to be coming off an upper body injury and not one that could affect his speed. The only benefit to his pectoral injury was Smith was permitted to rehab at Halas Hall during the offseason and therefore was under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Jason Loscalzo.
“He was awesome in the offseason,” Pagano said. “Zoom stuff, engaged, locked in like the rest of his teammates. He’s in phenomenal shape. He’s locked in. Going through the meetings to this point, the installs, had a couple walk-throughs with those guys, he’s on top of that. He hasn’t skipped a beat. I just think we’ve seen Pro Bowl-caliber play, now it’s just gotta be consistent. Coming into Year Three, he’s going to have a phenomenal year.”
A huge season for Smith could lead to a new contract in the next offseason a year after the Bears paid Trevathan to keep him from leaving in free agency. The Bears doubled down on their initial investment in the former Super Bowl champion with the Broncos, signing him to $21.75 million, three-year contract with $13.625 million guaranteed, a rich pay day for a 30-year-old who has missed 18 games over the last four seasons.
It’s Trevathan’s belief he’s just settling into the defense entering his second season under Pagano and inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone.
“I was just getting started,” said Trevathan, whose season was truncated by a dislocated left elbow in Week 9, leading to his second trip to injured reserve in four years.
“You haven’t seen that … I’m being serious. I was just touching the tip of the ’berg. I was starting to feel for the defense, get a feel for the inside backer for the defense. Now, I understand football so well. I know how to play the game mentally and beat people mentally as well as physically. So, I feel like I was definitely going to turn it up a couple notches last year.
“How do I get back to that? I never lost it, in my mind and how I feel. But I feel like it’s not gonna be no problem to get back to that dog. I just can’t wait to go out there and finish where I left off.”
The Bears must feel similarly as they essentially chose Trevathan over the drafted and developed Nick Kwiatkowski, who is three years younger and signed a nearly identical three-year contract with the Raiders. The loss of Kwiatkowski and Kevin Pierre-Louis in free agency eroded some of the Bears’ depth, but the frontline talent of Smith and Trevathan is unmistakable, particularly if Smith can become the kind of elite player the Bears envision as the last in a line of four consecutive top-10 picks by general manager Ryan Pace.
“I just have a chip on my shoulder, so it’s just more so myself knowing what I need to do to make myself the best possible player I need to be,” Smith said.
Earlier this offseason, Trevathan expressed concern about playing during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said his fiancee has asthma-like conditions and also had the health of his children to factor in.
“I definitely took some hard thought about the whole situation,” he said. “I had to see it first-hand, so I came in and I feel like they did a pretty good job handling the situation. You know, this thing is so wild. It definitely made me nervous a little bit. But I feel like I made the right decision.
“All this stuff is weird, to be honest. Sometimes, I like to get here into work early, but we can’t really go in right now because we got to get tested first, then you have to go in the building. Shoot, I don’t like getting stuff in my nose. That’s weird to me.”
Both Smith and Trevathan stressed the need for individuals to be disciplined with protocols at Halas Hall and away from it in order to keep the team safe. Smith said wearing a mask while practicing isn’t problematic.
“It’s not like you’re just huffing and puffing so I don’t think it’s that horrible honestly,” he said.
Also on their minds are issues around racial injustice. Trevathan tweeted last month after Bears legend Mike Ditka lambasted players who would kneel during the national anthem.
“Some of you old heads (legends/coaches etc.) are starting to really speak y’all minds and we see you all true colors. Now let me speak mines Shut yo a$$ up. If your not part of the solution, your part of the problem.”
“I was just speaking on how I feel,” Trevathan said of his tweet. “Obviously, those are great legends. I’m not pointing out nobody’s name, but it was a lot of people. But that’s stuff that I take serious and people around take serious. Closed mouths don’t get fed. Those people, I’m pretty sure they’re still strong on how they feel, and I’m still strong on how I feel.
“But the world is changing, man. A lot of things are coming to the light. I believe in doing right and not letting negativity in here. Although it may have come off as negative to some, I was just speaking my mind and letting them know how I feel.”
With Bears training camp slowly ramping up and players able to wear full pads beginning Aug. 17, the focus is turning to improving on the heels of a disappointing season. And the clock is ticking for Trevathan entering his ninth season.
“I want to be remembered,” he said. “Legacy lives on forever. You always want to leave behind something that can be remembered of yourself. People talk about you playing for the name on the front of your jersey as well as the name on the back of your jersey. So, I want to leave that out there because this is such a great tradition of linebackers the Bears have. I want to be up there in there. And to do that, I have to make plays. A Super Bowl would definitely put a stamp on that. And you know, you gotta have a great team, man. I feel like we’re in the right situation.”
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