When cornerback Josh Blackwell arrived in Chicago after being claimed off waivers Aug. 31, he wanted to create a spark quickly. The undrafted rookie out of Duke already experienced the challenges of trying to make it in the NFL, being cut multiple times by the Eagles in a matter of a week during the preseason.
Eager to "not swing and miss again," Blackwell attacked any opportunity the Bears coaching staff was willing to give him, starting with special teams. While he caught punts in college, Blackwell's special teams experience was limited. But for him, succeeding in that third phase of the game is all about "want to."
"That was the role I was given at the time," Blackwell said. "They were like, 'you're gonna play special teams,' and I was like, 'cool, I can contribute there.' But getting cut is a humbling experience. When you're basically told you're not good enough, that kind of stings a little bit. So when you get another opportunity, you're not gonna slip up the next time."
Blackwell quickly excelled in the role, forcing and recovering a fumble in punt coverage during the Bears' Week 4 game against the Giants. Special teams coordinator Richard Hightower said the rookie's speed and physicality were key on the play, but Blackwell's ability to use techniques he learned in practice and "carry a drill onto the field" left a stronger impression.
Each week, Blackwell continued to expand his responsibilities on special teams, playing 60 percent of the snaps this season. But leading up to the Bears' Dec. 4 matchup against the Packers, Blackwell learned he'd get his first start on defense alongside fellow rookie Jaylon Jones as starting cornerbacks Kyler Gordon and Kindle Vildor were out with injuries.
Blackwell's first start would also be the first time he played a defensive snap in the NFL. In the beginning of the season as the rookie got acclimated to the defense, he would get one or two reps at cornerback in practice. A few games in, Blackwell started working with the defensive staff more regularly and by Week 7 or 8, he was taking full reps in practices.
"When I started to grasp the defense and was thrown a little more into practice, I was like, 'okay, they're starting to trust me a little bit more,'" Blackwell said. "So that's when I said, 'okay, let me start watching film like I'm gonna play.' And there were some times throughout the season where they were like, 'we might need you to go because somebody's dinged up a little bit.' And I'm like, 'okay, I'm ready to go.' So it was a good balance. We watch film in here as a team, special teams, defense together anyways. But the little extra at home had to ramp up the more I started to learn the defense."
While Blackwell was starting his first NFL game against players he grew up watching, like Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and receiver Randall Cobb, taking the field didn't feel much different.
Keeping a level-headed mindset allowed Blackwell to shine in his defensive debut, most notably forcing punts on the Packers' first two possessions of the second half. Blackwell's tight coverage forced an incompletion intended for receiver Allen Lazard on third-and-1 then on third-and-15, he wrapped up tight end Robert Tonyan five yards short of the first-down marker.
Blackwell had a large role on defense again last Saturday when the Bills came to Chicago, playing 63 percent of the defensive snaps and breaking up a deep ball intended for receiver Isaiah McKenzie in the fourth quarter.
"If you had told me four months ago that I would be starting with the Bears against Josh Allen or Aaron Rodgers, I would've been surprised, truly," Blackwell said. "I mean, going from the bottom, getting cut, not knowing where you're gonna end up to now playing against the best is a complete 180."
Following the Bills game, coach Matt Eberflus was complimentary of the rookie, impressed with his tackling, coverage and ability to pressure when needed. Defensive coordinator Alan Williams has also been pleased with Blackwell's improvement, adding: "We like what he does, we like his stamina, we like his smarts."
Even with the added responsibilities during the past few weeks, Blackwell hasn't missed a step on special teams, remaining the unit's top tackler with 10 on the season. While Blackwell knew he was an unknown name heading into the year, opponents are quickly realizing his talents, even double-teaming the gunner at times.
"The thing about him is he's hungry and he still wants more," Hightower said. "To get a guy like that where we got him, without working with him in the offseason; I'm excited to work with him in the offseason. And quite frankly, I think he should be in the discussion for a Pro Bowl-type player. It's not being talked about. It's not being said. But he is playing at a Pro Bowl level. Every coordinator comes up and talks to me about how good of a player Josh Blackwell is and where did you find him."
As Blackwell reflects on his nearly complete rookie season, he's not necessarily shocked by his success, as he's always known his capabilities. It's the number of opportunities he's received with the Bears and the level of comfort he now feels that comes as a surprise.
His experience with being signed and released multiple times in Philadelphia, along with constantly worrying about being cut, created a level of stress Blackwell wasn't familiar with. Coming to Chicago and seeing a large rookie class – especially in the defensive back room with Jaquan Brisker, Elijah Hicks, Jones and Gordon – felt like college again for Blackwell. Having that group he can relate to and enjoy spending time with outside Halas Hall made it easier to regain his confidence and "just go out there and play."
"It's been a blast," Blackwell said. "We go out to eat together and we'll chop it up and be like, 'man, we just played against Aaron Rodgers. Just a year ago we were in college wondering if we would ever get this opportunity.' So it's super dope to even be in the position we're in and then we get to talk about it. Even on the field, we'll be joking around, like 'look at what we're doing. It's crazy.' It's really cool to even have this experience. We're all in this together, we all worked to get this opportunity and now it's coming to fruition."