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5 things we learned from Bears coordinators

Bears LBs Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith in action.

Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and special teams coordinator Chris Tabor cleared COVID protocol Thursday and returned to Halas Hall after missing Monday night's game against the Vikings.

Lazor, Tabor and defensive coordinator Sean Desai all spoke to the media Thursday via Zoom. Here are five things we learned from those sessions:

(1) Desai was disappointed to learn that linebacker Roquan Smith once again was not voted to the Pro Bowl despite having another stellar season.

The 2018 first-round draft pick ranks fourth in the NFL with 140 tackles and has also recorded nine tackles-for-loss, 3.0 sacks, three pass breakups and one interception that he returned 53 yards for a touchdown in a win over the Bengals.

"It's a travesty to me that he's not getting those accolades," Desai said. "He deserves every single accolade that one of the best linebackers in the league deserves, and he is one of the best linebackers in the league. You can put on the tape week-in and week-out.

"He's got the interception for a touchdown, he's top five in tackles—solo and total—he's at the top of every category in the league and his play and his relentless nature and his speed on tape shows up every week."

Smith was also snubbed last season when he ranked second in the NFL with 96 solo tackles and tied for second with 18 tackles-for-loss, the most by a Bears player since Hall of Fame middle linebacker Brian Urlacher had 19 in 2002. In addition, Smith was the only NFL player in 2020 to record at least 100 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss, 2.0 sacks and two interceptions.

"When you look at the production on the tape and you see the speed and the instincts with which this guy plays and how he gets people around him better," Desai said, "he's kind of been the one constant for us this year that's played in every single game and has been that productive every single game week-in and week-out. His ability to get off blocks, his ability to diagnose, key and diagnose plays and get to the ballcarrier on a consistent basis is unique, and I think that's what needs to be emphasized."

(2) Desai believes that outside linebacker Robert Quinn's success is a byproduct of the veteran's intense drive to excel.

Quinn, who was voted to his third career Pro Bowl earlier this week, ranks second in the NFL with 16.0 sacks. It's the third highest total in Bears history behind Hall of Fame defensive end Richard Dent's team-record 17.5 in 1984 and 17.0 in 1985 for the Super Bowl XX champions.

"He has a lot of pride in the way he plays and the product he puts on the field," Desai said. "He takes a lot of pride in his craft. He cherishes every moment that he gets, whether it's a practice rep or game rep. He tries to optimize all of those. That's kind of who he is."

Quinn's 16.0 sacks are the second most in his 11-year NFL career, topped only by the 19.0 sacks he recorded for the Rams in 2013, when was named All-Pro and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl.

Quinn was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November after registering 5.5 sacks, 14 tackles, five tackles-for-loss and two forced fumbles. In a loss to the Ravens, he set a career high with 3.5 sacks.

"He goes at 1,000 miles per hour every day," Desai said. "You've seen the fruits of his labor. He's done a great job this year in terms of preparing. Coach [Bill] Shuey has done a great job with him. He's kind of understanding his role within the defense and excelling with his role in the defense."

(3) Lazor has seen growth from second-year tight end Cole Kmet in the passing game, especially with route running.

Kmet is second on the Bears with 49 receptions for 490 yards, trailing only receiver Darnell Mooney (57-803) in both categories. The 2020 second-round pick from Notre Dame has caught 20 passes in the last four games, the most in any four-game span in his two seasons with the Bears.

"In the pass game you want to see the savviness and detail that sometimes comes just with experience of running some of the routes," Lazor said. "He can't control the coverage; whether he gets man or doesn't get man. But if you can look into the future with what Cole's physical abilities are and how smart he is, how conscientious he is, I think you're going to see a guy who, over time, maxes out his physical ability with exactly how you run the routes.

"What do I do at the top? What if I want to break out and the defender is already outside of me? How do I get his hips turned so I can beat his leverage? If I want to run a stop route, how do I make him believe that it's a full-speed down the field route and then put the brakes on better than him?

"Just all those little details. Now you can go back and watch all of those little things happening on film from Year 1 to Year 2. Those things are happening. It's just that growth. I think of the savviness of an NFL route runner and his ability to do that, I think, is fantastic because, like I said, he's a smart guy and he's going to work really hard at it."

(4) After losing sleep while preparing to play against him, Tabor is thrilled to be able to coach return specialist Jakeem Grant Sr.

Acquired by the Bears Oct. 5 in a trade with the Dolphins, Grant was named to his first career Pro Bowl earlier this week. In 10 games since arriving in Chicago, he has averaged 14.6 yards with one touchdown on 17 punt returns and 24.4 yards on 20 kickoff returns.

Grant's 97-yard punt return touchdown Dec. 12 in Green Bay was the NFL's first punt return TD of the season and the longest punt return TD in Bears history, eclipsing Johnny Bailey's 95-yarder Dec. 29, 1990.

Asked what he's learned about Grant since the trade, Tabor said: "[I've] gotten to understand what's underneath the hood; how he studies, how he studies punters. He will come in with ideas. Obviously, those are things you don't know because you are not with the player all the time. He's a really good student of the game. I like how he works at his craft and he can be dynamic with the football in his hands."

Tabor knew that Grant was a dangerous return specialist before they joined forces in Chicago. As Browns special teams coordinator in 2016, Tabor studied Grant in the draft and then watched him return a kickoff 27 yards for the Dolphins versus Cleveland during his rookie season.

"I knew that when he was at Miami and when we were playing him, whether that was Cleveland or here when we went down there a few years ago," Tabor said. "I always knew what type of player we were facing because I lost some sleep on him. I was well aware of him."

(5) Tabor has been impressed, but not surprised, with the impact that veteran Damien Williams has made on special teams in recent weeks.

In the Bears' last two games, Williams threw a key block on Grant's 97-yard punt return TD in Green Bay and then deflected a Vikings punt, causing it to travel just 17 yards Monday night at Soldier Field.

"Well, No. 1, he's just a really good football player, and I think that's evident," Tabor said. "The one play no one is going to talk about is in the Green Bay game toward the end. They ran a little pick-twist on the inside. He ends up double bumping it and cleaning it up for us, and then obviously we get the punt off and nothing happens. But that was a big-time play when you really are studying the tape. He's a really smart football player."

Williams has been a top special teams contributor throughout his NFL career, previously with the Dolphins (2014-17) and Chiefs (2018-19). His special teams coordinator in Kansas City was Dave Toub, who held that role in Chicago, with Tabor serving as Toub's assistant from 2008-10.

"I talked to Dave when we got him, and I already knew Damien's history from Miami and in Kansas City, so I knew what kind of football player we were getting," Tabor said. "I also knew if we needed something in certain positions, he was a more than willing participant to help us out."

With that in mind, Tabor inserted Williams as the Bears' punt protector after DeAndre Houston-Carson fractured his forearm against the Packers.

"He jumped right in there at PP and didn't miss a beat," Tabor said. "And that's obviously the quarterback of the punt team."

With the Bears making the long trek out west to Seattle this weekend, here are the 10 longest trips they've made over the past decade.

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Larry Mayer

Bears Senior Writer

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