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Tape study: Roquan Smith starting to show he could be on verge of breakout

October 6, 2018

Roquan Smith made his Chicago Bears debut in Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers and wasted no time making his impact felt. He sacked backup QB DeShone Kizer on his first defensive snap after replacing a banged-up Danny Trevathan and netted an impressive three tackles on only eight snaps in the opening-game loss.

Since then, Smith has been a starter. He’s played more than 80 percent of the defensive snaps in the Bears’ past three games and ranks second on the team to Trevathan in tackles with 18. Although his big-play stats have been somewhat limited through one quarter of the season, it’s easy to see where Smith has developed quickly after a 29-day holdout in training camp that most now have forgotten about.

Smith also was slowed prior to the season with a hamstring injury. But it’s easy to see why the Bears chose him No. 8 in the draft, and with a talented defense around him, it has eased the pressure on the rookie to be spectacular out of the chute.

We singled out Smith a few days ago as one of the more underappreciated aspects of the team’s 3-1 start but wanted to dig deeper into the tape to see how the rookie is progressing early on. Here’s a look at how he has come along with each game — and how high the ceiling is for the young playmaker out of Georgia.

Week 1: Green Bay Packers

Trevathan went down late in the second quarter, suffering from a bit of friendly fire in a collision with teammate Bryce Callahan when the Packers were trying to score quickly after falling behind 10-0. That’s when Smith first stepped onto the field for the Bears. Lined up four yards off the line of scrimmage, Smith came on a fairly vanilla blitz called by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

What was most impressive on the play was how Smith (No. 58) shocked Packers RB Ty Montgomery on the rush, bench pressed him and finished of the sack of Kizer. Smith was lucky that Khalil Mack and Roy Robertson-Harris had created the pressure, keeping Kizer hemmed in, but credit the rookie for finishing off the play:

On his second snap, Smith also rushed and occupied Packers RT Bryan Bulaga while Mack pressured Kizer on an incomplete pass. And on the very next play, right before the half, Robertson-Harris pressured Kizer on a three-man rush that resulted in a Mack pick-6.

Smith only received a handful more snaps the rest of the game as Trevathan returned after halftime and the coaching staff stuck with Nick Kwiatkoski for most of the snaps at the other ILB spot until late in the fourth quarter. That would change in the coming weeks.

Week 2: Seattle Seahawks

Smith started and played 59-of-66 defensive snaps in his Soldier Field debut, playing one more snap than Trevathan. Typically, the Bears had him lined up on the weak side of the formation and often asked him to cover Seahawks RBs Chris Carson, C.J. Prosise and Rashaad Penny out of the backfield. They also asked Smith to carry some of the Seahawks’ tight ends downfield, including rookie Will Dissly, who was their leading receiver the week prior but has since landed on IR.

You could see Trevathan and Smith chatting often before plays to make sure they were on the same page, a sign of good leadership by Trevathan and an indication that Smith was still absorbing his assignments in this game. Early on Smith was fooled a bit by play action and the flow of play on bootlegs and rollouts at times, but he certainly didn’t look lost.

One tough rep came here on a 3rd-and-8 in the second quarter with the Bears protecting a 10-0 lead and the Seahawks at midfield. A stop here would have been big for Chicago, but Smith can’t bring down Russell Wilson on a scramble that gains nine yards and keeps the drive alive. The Seahawks would tack on a field goal before the half to cut the lead to 10-3.

Watch here on the play as Smith appears to get caught up in the traffic while checking Dissly in zone coverage, but the rookie lunges just a bit too far and can’t make the ankle tackle:

It’s easy to see Smith’s instincts and closing speed, two things that absolutely stood out in his college tape as well. The former high school receiver is still relatively new to linebacker, but his football IQ is evident and he’s developing his diagnostic skills very well for such a young player. He also stays light on his feet when dropping in zone and closes fast to the ball.

In one of his better plays of an inconsistent first start was this snap on the second defensive series of the second half. Smith keeps his eyes on Wilson dropping back and drifting to his right, able to snap forward like a python and close fast on Carson, knocking away the short pass attempt in a hurry:

Smith lost his footing a few times early in coverage, perhaps adjusting to the Soldier Field turf or maybe suffering from a few early butterflies, but it didn’t hurt the Bears. He also flashed some nice open-field tackling against TE Nick Vannett on an 8-yard gain midway through the fourth quarter, closing fast and wrapping up, and also doing a pretty good job of slipping past other block attempts.

Smith might not be a true stack-and-shed linebacker a la Trevathan, but he has some pop in his pads and scrapes down the line well to make plays from the backside. There were still some things Smith clearly needed to clean up in coverage in the game, such as the Seahawks’ final touchdown (on what looked to be a mixup with Kwiatkoski on a third-and-goal pass), but overall his work was solid.

Smith barely has played on special teams (one snap through four games) as the team has sought to keep his assignments dialed in on defense. There was a lot on his plate in his first start, and he looked OK — especially considering how little time he had with the team this summer.

Better play, however, would come in his next two outings.

Week 3: Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals clearly wanted to test Trevathan and Smith in coverage. Their game plan called for spreading the Bears out and isolating them on receivers, backs and tight ends in open space. It worked on both the Cardinals’ touchdowns, as Trevathan appeared to lose track of TE Ricky Seals-Jones on the first score and couldn’t keep with RB David Johnson on a corner route.

But Smith overall held his own. Watch here as he’s lined up off the ball over the Cardinals’ right tackle, John Wetzel, and is drawn toward the middle of the formation by Arizona’s motion. Smith is able to reverse field quickly, escape the second-level block attempt of C Mason Cole and cover a ton of ground in holding RB Chase Edmonds to a 3-yard gain on the first-down wide pitch:

Another impressive play came late in the second quarter after the Bears had cut the Arizona lead to 14-3. The Cardinals went into their two-minute drill and hoped to get back on the scoreboard before the half. After missing on a deep shot on first down, they got a bit conservative and hoped to go after Smith in space. But he had good coverage and awareness and kept Johnson in his sights.

This looked like a good film-study play from the rookie on 2nd-and-10 from the Arizona 25. Watch as Smith is not fooled by Seals-Jones running a stick route right in front of him and knows that Johnson is the first read on this play. Smith takes him down for a 2-yard loss that eventually leads to an Arizona punt:

Overall, it was a good second start from Smith. A few times he fought through traffic to make plays in the run game and certainly wasn’t exposed in coverage. This was the bounce-back performance the team likely expected, and the rookie delivered. One negative — shades of the Seattle game — was when Smith overran a dumpoff to Johnson and allowed him to gain 12 yards on the play in the fourth quarter where he was met near the line of scrimmage. This is something opponents are sure to pick up on.

Smith was knocked back a few times on lead blocks, and he must remember: low man wins. At his size, Smith always will need to be technically sound, get his legs underneath him and stay down when defending in traffic against bigger blockers. He does this best when coming on blitzes, but it’s imperative to do so as well when trying to meet a man in the hole against the run, too.

But the rookie appears to have been taught good, active hand use — likely first by the Georgia staff and reinforced by his work with the Bears’ defensive coaches. Smith also has the innate ability to keep light on his feet and slip past block attempts, which will always make him a tough target.

One underrated play Smith made was sticking closely with Larry Fitzgerald on a pivot route on 2nd-and-8 at the Chicago 21-yard line. That was Bradford’s first read, and he locked in on the future Hall of Famer. But Smith had him covered nicely, and Mack came in for the game-changing strip sack. That’s a great example of coverage helping the pass rush, and the rookie came through in a big moment with the Bears trailing 14-13 with just over 11 minutes left. If Smith doesn’t stick with Fitzgerald, there was a lot of green grass behind him in the Bears’ red zone.

The Bears’ defense as a whole stepped up in a big way after a bad first drive, allowing only 146 net yards over Arizona’s final 10 possessions that included a late-game shakeup with Josh Rosen replacing Sam Bradford at QB. There appeared to be no confusion or panic on the final drives as the Cardinals desperately tried to win the game.

Week 4: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Smith’s best game to date — no question.

On the second play from scrimmage, Smith stuck with Bucs TE Cameron Brate on an out route and forced QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw incomplete into traffic downfield. On the second series defensively, Smith allowed an 8-yard catch underneath to TE Antony Auclair — and Pro Football Focus charted it as the only reception Smith allowed all game. That held true on our tape review, as well.

The Bucs were down 14-0 less than 13 minutes into the game, and it forced them to scrap whatever semblance of a rushing attack they planned coming in. That helped simplify the Bears’ defensive responsibilities a bit and made life easier for them. They could pin their ears back, not worry as much about the run most of the game and hone in on containing the Bucs’ dangerous pass catchers. It became even easier when TE O.J. Howard left the game with an injury, taking away one more weapon Smith might have been asked to help check.

The Bucs’ longest play from scrimmage — a 48-yard catch and run by DeSean Jackson late in the first quarter — was a good throw between Trevathan and Smith, but we think Trevathan’s drop in zone could have been better. Don’t pin this one on the rookie.

Once more, Smith was occupied by a block and could do a better job of shedding on the very next play, a 5-yard run where C Ryan Jensen bottled the rookie up. But fast-forward to late in the second quarter, with the Bucs now trailing 35-3, and Smith did a good job filling the hole (along with Trevathan) on a run that was designed to go inside. He took on Brate’s block, earned a stalemate and forced Peyton Barber to bounce outside for what would be a 1-yard gain in the red zone.

What Smith did wasn’t flashy, and he still can stand to get better leverage vs. the block, but this is a good example of carrying out his job well after sniffing out the run play based on the movement of the blockers:

Smith disguised and timed up his few blitzes well when he got the chance. He looked at ease dropping into deep coverage. The Bears even used him on a few snaps to help bracket WR Mike Evans. On Trevathan’s third-quarter interception of Jameis Winston (who replaced Fitzpatrick), Smith briefly bit on the play-action fake but recovered nicely and was in proper position to make a play if he were needed.

The remainder of the game was just about playing assignment football and not allowing big plays and mental mistakes. Smith and the Bears handled it perfectly, not allowing another big lead to slip away as they did in Week 1.

Overall, Smith’s play has been encouraging to this point. The lack of big-impact plays since the first-snap sack are worth noting. But there’s ample indication that Smith could be in line for more game-changing reps the more comfortable he gets in the system, with the number of free lanes he’s been given to run and the ease with which he drops into coverage. There’s an impact player just waiting to break out in the Bears’ first-round pick if the first four games are any indication.

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