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Sanborn emerging as Bears defensive playmaker

Bears linebacker Jack Sanborn
Bears linebacker Jack Sanborn

In just his second NFL start, linebacker Jack Sanborn seemingly produced an impact play early in the fourth quarter by intercepting Jared Goff in the red zone.

What would've been Sanborn's first career takeaway was negated by a penalty, but coach Matt Eberflus sees it as a breakthrough moment for the undrafted rookie.

"What a great play by Sanborn," Eberflus told reporters Monday. "What a great play by him, getting into that window, making that interception, returning it back to the 25. And then to me, that was really a momentum play in the game. So I was really proud of the guys making that play."

Sanborn said the Bears defense prepared for a moment like that all week, knowing the Lions "like to run angle routes in the red zone especially to (D'Andre Swift)." So when Goff dropped back and Swift headed for the end zone, Sanborn kept his eyes on the QB then jumped up to pick the ball off as the sequence "played out exactly like we wanted it to."

Even without the interception, the Wisconsin product generated a productive performance against the Lions just a week after taking over the middle linebacker spot. He recorded a team-high 12 tackles, including nine solo tackles, and accounted for the defense's only two sacks Sunday.

While Sanborn has moved on from not being selected in the NFL Draft last spring, he's still trying to appreciate the small moments of going from an undrafted rookie to leading the Bears in tackles while knowing Chicago "was where I kind of wanted to be."

"It's something I learned throughout college is everyone is very fortunate to be where they are," Sanborn said. "And it's something you've got to do from time to time because everyone is so focused on getting better, winning the game and everything that comes, because it's so challenging. 

"I think taking that three seconds, five seconds to really kind of breathe, soak in the moment is something that's important and something that you can take when you look back and be like, 'man, I remember that moment.' It's something that I don't know if a lot of people do, but I think it's something that's sometimes important, but at the same time, you're focused on so much more."

Eberflus had high praise for the rookie's natural instincts, which Sanborn credited to his longstanding experience at the position and the opportunity to learn from former Badgers players like T.J Edwards, Jake Cichy and Zack Baun, who each hold NFL roster spots.

"I've been playing linebacker for a long time, and I think all of the experience I've kind of had in watching guys play the position," Sanborn said. "I was fortunate enough to be at Wisconsin, and growing through there, I was able to see how really good linebackers played the position that were ahead of me. So from that introduction to the position, learning it, seeing what they do, I give them a lot of credit. And then it's just kind of experience, and then the more opportunity you have to grow."

After Sanborn was on the field for just one defensive down through the first seven weeks of the season, he played 90 percent of the defensive snaps against Detroit and 88 percent last week versus Miami.

While his role has drastically changed in a matter of three weeks, Sanborn's quickly ascended into a playmaker for the Bears defense while earning the team's confidence. On the Lions' first offensive play Sunday, defensive coordinator Alan Williams sent Sanborn and linebacker Joe Thomas to blitz, which resulted in a batted down pass by Thomas.

Then midway through the second quarter on first-and-goal, Goff rolled left looking for running back Jamaal Williams in the end zone, but Sanborn tracked the QB down and sacked him for a loss of 3 yards. The linebacker's second sack came late in the third quarter on second-and-7 when he blitzed, blew past offensive tackle Taylor Decker and spun Goff around for a five-yard loss, stalling the drive.

"He likes to hit," Eberflus said. "He's a guy, if you're a linebacker, you have to like that part of the game, the physical style of the game. And he also has good ability to pressure. He can get one-on-one with a back and has the ability to get slippery and slide to the side to stay vertical in that rush. And he's smart. He's really smart, really understands the defense. He did a nice job. He did a nice job. He's been solid in there for sure."