Linebacker Roquan Smith has played a vital role in the Bears defense since arriving in Chicago in 2018.
His performance in the first five games of the season has his position coach hopeful that Smith has taken a crucial step forward: establishing himself as the leader of the defense. Inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone praised the third-year player after Smith recorded six solo tackles and defended two passes against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"Ro is in Year 3," said DeLeone, "but he's younger than a lot of these guys who are rookies. He's a young guy, and I think he's grown into it physically, mentally and emotionally, and [he now possesses] the maturity of being the leader of the defense."
Smith, who turned 23 in April, has performed roughly on par with his performance the previous two seasons, at least from a numbers standpoint. However, Smith is handling an increased role as more responsibility slides from veteran Danny Trevathan to Smith.
"I think there's a lot of credit here to Danny and the way Danny's helped him with this," said DeLeone, "and the way Danny's helped him grow and been a mentor with him. And I don't think Ro would be having as much success with being the signal-caller without Danny's presence. I think from both of them, I see great growth and maturity there."
Before the season started, the coaching staff and Smith himself hinted that the former first-rounder would take a step forward due to his work in offseason film study. DeLeone said that Smith has continued to handle the academic parts of his job with the same rigor five weeks into the season.
"I think his focus and mindset right now is in a really, really good place," said DeLeone. "This is a guy who texts me early in the morning, late at night, football questions. When he comes in here, he's got specific questions based off tape, and you know he asks the right kind of questions. He's not just watching the game. He's studying it and doing a great job with that."
Dynamic Duo: The Bears picked Jaylon Johnson in the second round, hoping he would eventually take over for departed Prince Amukamara and form a potent tandem with All-Pro cornerback Kyle Fuller.
Everything appears to be a bit ahead of schedule. Johnson has started every game this season, successfully defending seven passes. Fuller has forced two turnovers: an interception in Week 1 and a forced fumble last Thursday.
Secondary coach Deshea Townsend believes that success in this defensive scheme relies on Johnson and Fuller being able to play well in isolation.
"You're gonna know those guys are gonna be in man-to-man situations," said Townsend, "but if you look at what they're doing, we're keeping guys from scoring touchdown passes, and that always goes [back] to those guys being on an island, along with a great pass rush and some other things that help. But you always know where those guys are. They're doing what they're supposed to do."
Townsend said that the entire defensive backfield has taken Johnson under their collective wing, helping the rookie improve as the season goes along.
"They're tackling well," said Townsend. "You see how those guys tackle, how they throw it in there. It just goes to how those guys play. With Jaylon being such a young guy and with the group we have with Eddie [Jackson], Gip [Tashaun Gipson Sr.], Buster [Skrine], Kyle, all of those help him become a better player, which makes the tandem [with Fuller] even better."
Keeping fresh: Since missing the season opener in Detroit, linebacker Robert Quinn has eased into his role with the Bears. Quinn has seen increased usage in each of the last four games, playing in 58 percent of the defensive plays for the first time this season last Thursday.
Outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino hinted that Quinn's reps against Tampa Bay would likely be the standard going forward.
"We know where he plays best," said Monachino. "So we are going to try to keep his numbers around that number [58 percent]. It's somewhere just north of half the snaps. That's where we are trying to keep him."
Quinn didn't record a tackle against the Buccaneers, but he had a hand in the pass rush that flustered future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. Quinn also recovered the fumble forced by Fuller, which set up a go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter. Against the pass-happy Buccaneers, the Bears needed as much of Quinn's services as they could get.
"There are times in the game when he needs to be out there regardless of situation," said Monachino, "and those are the times we use him in those roles. We also know that his dominant trait is rushing the passer, and we want to give him as many opportunities to do that as he can."
The coaching staff's focus for the 30-year-old Quinn is the balancing act between maximizing his production while keeping him healthy over the course of the season.
"We are keeping very close track of his rep count and trying to keep him as fresh as we can," said Monachino, "so if we do run into two-minute situations at the end of a game, he and Khalil [Mack] are as fresh as possible."
Stepping Up: The Bears acquired Brent Urban in the middle of the 2019 season after the Tennessee Titans cut the veteran defensive end in late October. Since arriving in Chicago, Urban has made the most of his opportunities.
When nose tackle Eddie Goldman opted out of the season, defensive line coach Jay Rodgers called upon Urban to learn a new position to help offset that loss.
"We've asked him to play a couple different roles going into the season," said Rodgers. "[He's] never played nose until the last few weeks. [He's] been mostly a defensive end his entire career. And he's a team guy who will do whatever it takes to get on the field and play at a high level."
So far, Urban's flexibility has paid off. He recorded his first full sack in four years against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 4, and his 6-7 frame has become a disruptive force in the middle. Rodgers believes that Urban is affecting the game in ways not captured by the box score.
"He has made some impactful plays," said Rodgers, "and some of the things that don't get noticed out there is his presence in the pass rush. Even though he had the one sack versus [Colts quarterback] Philip Rivers, there are at least two or three other times when his hands are up, which led to other people having production."