The Bears' coaching staff came into the season predicting big things for Roquan Smith.
The former first-round pick was coming off a second season marred by injury, requiring offseason surgery. Still, the coaching staff praised Smith's maturation, offseason conditioning and focus on becoming a leader of the defense.
Inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone hinted that 2020 would be a key year for Smith's progress.
"I do feel like there's a gradual level where he's getting better," said DeLeone, "and I think going into Year 3, he's going to have a chance to have a breakout year this year."
With only one game left to play, "breakout" might be the best way to describe Smith's year. Smith's rookie statistics were impressive: 121 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, five sacks. However, Smith's numbers are even more staggering this season: 136, 17, four.
Smith even has one game left to play: a season-defining matchup against the Green Bay Packers this Sunday.
Smith jump-started the Bears' blowout 41-17 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars with a team-leading eight tackles and two crucial interceptions.
Smith is the first Bears linebacker to have a multi-interception game since Lance Briggs in 2008. He is one of 15 defenders—and the only linebacker—to have accomplished the feat this season.
"I think that those were something that you look at, and you say those were momentum changers," said safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. "I think that Roquan's been doing what he's been doing all year, and I don't think he gets enough credit. But it's kind of one of those things where you kind of put the nail in the coffin, and once that happened, those two interceptions turned into big points."
Smith has played the entire season with the green dot, meaning he is the player entrusted with a headset in his helmet to communicate with the sideline. He took this responsibility from fellow linebacker Danny Trevathan in a symbolic passing of the torch.
The result is that the third-year linebacker almost never leaves the field. After missing one play against the Detroit Lions in Week 1, Smith has played on every defensive snap except at the end of lopsided wins against the Jaguars and Houston Texans in the last three weeks.
Another result is a linebacker who can stay on the field in all situations. Smith has shown off improved coverage skills, successfully defended seven passes this season.
Smith's first interception of the season came when the score was tied 10-10 with only seconds remaining in the first half. Smith intercepted quarterback Mike Glennon to set up a last-second Cairo Santos field goal to enter the locker room on a happy note.
"I saw the back go out to the flat," said Smith. "I actually haven't seen the play yet, but I figured from just study and practice reps this week, I knew the receiver was probably going to run a dig route, a deep in route from that side, so I was just in the right place at the right time. I couldn't believe he threw it, actually. But it happened, just take advantage of it."
The interception took some of the sting of what had come before: the Bears' 68-yard drive had resulted in no points after quarterback Mitchell Trubisky threw an interception in the end zone. Smith's big-play helped wipe away frustration and helped the quarterback bounce back in the second half.
"That's what it's all about," said Smith. "Just having each other's back. I feel like he made a throw that I'm sure he would like to have back, and I was just at the right place at the right time."
Smith was hurt on the play. He missed most of the locker room discussion during halftime while he was getting himself situated. However, he disagrees with the idea that he was "banged up" since he didn't end up missing any plays.
Smith's performance comes after a week in which he was not selected to play in the Pro Bowl, despite leading the NFC in solo tackles and tackles-for-loss. Coach Matt Nagy and several teammates registered their disappointment with the snub.
For his part, Smith ignored the issue and made a statement of his own on the field Sunday.
"I haven't heard him even bring it up, to be honest with you," Gipson told reporters on Thursday, "so that just shows you the type of player that he is, the type of guy that he is, beyond just a players' type of guy that he is. We've been able to see the growth of his game throughout the season, man, and it's a travesty that he didn't make it."