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Bears reserve DBs rise up to challenge

Bears cornerbacks Greg Stroman Jr. and Terell Smith
Bears cornerbacks Greg Stroman Jr. and Terell Smith

The Bears have played without several of their top defensive backs for much of the season, but a handful of opportunistic reserves have stepped up and more than filled the void.

With cornerbacks Jaylon Johnson and Kyler Gordon and safeties Eddie Jackson and Jaquan Brisker sidelined by injuries at times, cornerbacks Greg Stroman Jr. and Terell Smith and safeties Elijah Hicks and Quindell Johnson all have made an impact.

That was certainly the case last Thursday in Washington, when Stroman registered a sack, an interception and seven tackles, and Smith produced six tackles while also forcing and recovering a fumble by stripping tight end Logan Thomas after a reception.

"Everybody talks about next-man-up mentality, and that's truly what it is," said cornerbacks coach/defensive passing coordinator Jon Hoke. "They all work very hard through the week, and they do a good job of preparing through the week, and I think that showed on Thursday."

Stroman was selected by Washington in the seventh round of the 2018 draft out of Virginia Tech. He played in 15 games with three starts as a rookie, recording 38 tackles, one interception, four pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. But he spent most of the next two seasons on injured reserve, appearing in just one game in 2019 and four in 2020. 

In December 2021, Stroman spent one week on the Bills practice squad and 12 days on the Rams practice squad. He signed with the Bears in 2022 and played in four games with one start, compiling 19 tackles, one interception, one sack and one pass breakup. 

Stroman continued to make plays on the ball in practice this summer.

"He had a really good training camp," Hoke said. "He had a lot of production on the ball on a day-to-day basis. On Thursday, he played a really good game. Was very instinctive, showed that he has played the game of pro football before. It wasn't too big for him. Really excited for him with the way he played and the way he was able to produce."

Stroman was released by the Bears Aug. 29 as part of final cuts and re-signed to the practice squad the next day. He was promoted to the 53-man roster Sept. 14 and has played in all four games since. 

"It's been a blessing just to be in the building and just play this game that we all love," Stroman said. "It's been fun. It's been a grind and definitely it brings me closer to a lot of the guys in the locker room."

The Bears were back on the practice fields at Halas Hall to continue their preparation for Sunday's Week 6 game against the Minnesota Vikings.

Smith was chosen by the Bears in the fifth round of this year's draft out of Minnesota. He impressed coaches in offseason practices but was slowed by injuries.

After playing sparingly in the first two games, Smith has excelled since Jaylon Johnson injured his hamstring Sept. 24 against the Chiefs. In the last three contests, the 6-1, 204-pounder has generated 21 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, two pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

"He's gotten better," Hoke said. "He's a young man that prepares well. He goes into it with great detail about his assignment and what he's supposed to do, how he's supposed to do it."

"You've just got to continue to stay prepared and watch film," Smith said. "Take notes while you're watching film just like you are the starter. I feel like as long as you do those things, you'll be all right."

Starting the last two games gave Smith a chance to "prove to myself what I already knew; that I can compete and play in this league."

"It was a great opportunity," he said. "I feel like I was able to show a lot of people what I could do in a bigger role."

Hicks has also made the most of his opportunity to play. Since Jackson sustained a foot injury in a Week 2 loss in Tampa, the 2022 seventh-round pick from California has registered 16 tackles and one pass breakup in four games.

Quindell Johnson hasn't had as many chances, but the undrafted rookie from Memphis made the most of one in Kansas City when he snagged his first career interception. Johnson was claimed by the Bears off waivers from the Rams Aug. 30.

"My whole mindset is 'stay ready so you don't have to get ready,'" he said. "Just continue to be in my playbook because I've only been here for a month. So make sure that I'm ready when my number's called. This is a physical game. Injuries are going to happen. You never know when your turn is going to come, so you've got to stay ready."