A few days after another stellar performance by Roquan Smith, Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano compared the linebacker Thursday to a Hall of Famer and an expensive bottle of wine.
Smith fueled a bounce-back effort by the Bears defense last Sunday in a 36-7 rout of the Houston Texans, recording 12 tackles, two sacks, two tackles-for-loss and three quarterback hits.
"This guy prepares and practices just like that dude, 52," Pagano said in likening Smith to former Ravens star middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who Pagano coached when he served as a Baltimore assistant from 2008-11.
"He's playing at a really high level and he's been really consistent. I can just see his play getting better and better and better every single week. He goes out and he has dominant performances. Last week was no different. He did one heck of a job. He's taken advantage of some opportunities that are presenting themselves in the run game and the pass game, and coming up with a couple sacks in certain situations."
Smith ranks third in the NFL with 122 tackles, already topping his career-high of 121 he set in 2018 as a rookie first-round draft pick. The Georgia product leads the league with 85 tackles and is second with a career-high 17 tackles-for-loss, trailing only the Steelers' T.J. Watt (19).
"Like a fine wine, he's getting better with age," Pagano said of Smith. He's not an Opus One yet, another near that. Maybe a Duckhorn, a Cakebread. He's moving up the ladder of Northern California/Napa Valley, really nice Cab. He's locked in and he's so focused right now. He just wants to do great things for his teammates. He's a selfless dude."
Pagano told reporters that he's been just as impressed with Smith's leadership and communication as he's been with his production.
"If you guys could be at practice and watch us go through a walk-through, watch us go through a run period, a blitz period, a 7-on-7, he's getting the front lined up, he's making checks that normally 'backers don't make," Pagano said. "Him and [fellow inside linebacker] Danny [Trevathan] work in unison together. It's pretty unique.
"Again, that's a byproduct of that kid's preparation. He watches a ton of film. So come game day, it's not a surprise that he can play as fast and make as many plays as he does."
Appreciating Mack's dominant performance
Pagano also lauded star outside linebacker Khalil Mack for his performance against the Texans. The five-time Pro Bowler helped the Bears snap their six-game losing streak by sacking quarterback Deshaun Watson in the end zone for a safety and forcing and recovering a fumble when he ripped the ball away from running back Duke Johnson.
"I think he just finally said, 'OK, regardless of who they put on me—one, two, three, whatever it is—I'm taking this thing over. We're not going to be denied a win today,'" Pagano said. "He and the other guys, they went out and did just that. That was a dominant performance. We've seen games like that before. You guys have seen it out of him. We need the same thing this week out of him, and he'll do that."
Mack hasn't missed a game this season despite regularly sitting out practices and being listed as questionable on the injury report due to ankle, shoulder, knee and back injuries. He did not practice Thursday because of a shoulder issue.
Rookie fifth-round outside linebacker Trevis Gipson has enjoyed learning from Mack on and off the field. Asked what he tells friends about the three-time All-Pro, Gipson said: "I tell them he doesn't speak much, but when it's time to go play football, he's all the way there. Just the way that he carries himself, how he approaches the game, the demeanor that he has, how he carries himself is pretty cool."
Gipson received a rare opportunity to join Mack on the field against the Texans, playing a season-high 20 snaps. Asked to describe Mack's performance, Gipson said: "It was amazing. Honestly, those are the things that we expect out of Khalil because he does it so much. That wasn't a surprise to me, the plays that he made. It was actually amazing to watch from the sideline, and then if not [from the sideline], on the field with him."
Defense's excellence was a group effort
While Smith and Mack led the charge, the defense's stellar performance against the Texans was a team effort. The unit produced seven sacks—the most by the Bears since they had eight in a 2005 win over the Panthers. Six of the seven sacks came against Texans star quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Smith and Mario Edwards Jr. recorded two sacks apiece, while Mack, Bilal Nichols and Brent Urban added one each.
"We had a really good plan going in for that player and our guys executed it well," said outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino. "And Deshaun is not a guy you just go and hit. He's a guy you have to tackle. Our guys did a great job of keeping him bottled up, and we threw as many bodies at him as we possibly could."
The Bears hope they can generate the same kind of pressure Sunday on Kirk Cousins. The Vikings quarterback has been sacked 10 times in the last two games after being sacked just eight times in the previous six contests.
"There's a sense of urgency," Pagano said. "There's a sense of urgency from a physical standpoint, a mental standpoint, and then our preparation is vital. Winning is important, but preparation is vital. So there's a sense of urgency, but it's a confident group that we have on defense. They prepare well. They'll go play well."
The Bears hit the Halas Hall practice fields on a chilly Thursday afternoon to get ready for Sunday's pivotal matchup with the Vikings in Minnesota.