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Bears Film Study: Roquan Smith is the Perfect Fit in Vic Fangio’s Defense

The Chicago Bears, Vic Fangio, and Roquan Smith are the perfect match.

When the Chicago Bears selected Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith with the eighth overall pick, they did so with the expectation that he would make an immediate impact in Vic Fangio’s defensive scheme.

After taking a closer look at his game tape in college, there are very few, if any, linebackers in college football better suited to do such a thing. Smith’s skill set fits the system that the Bears run perfectly.

Not to say that the Bears’ incumbent linebackers were incompetent last year, they were not, but they were subpar in many areas that Smith will be expected to fix-specifically, in the areas of coverage, instincts, awareness, play recognition, vision, sideline-to-sideline speed, and gap filling. All of these aspects are key components in a Fangio defense and Smith is extremely strong in each and every one.

Today I’ll take an in-depth look at how Roquan Smith fits into the Bears’ defense and in which places he can make his mark right away, beginning in training camp and leading up to week one against the rival Green Bay Packers.

Coverage

In a defense with only two off the ball linebackers, both are expected to have refined skills in pass defense and cover large areas of the field. For example, check out this key moment in the Bears-Falcons 2017 week one matchup.

Chicago had a shot to defeat the defending NFC champions even with Mike Glennon at quarterback. They had Matt Ryan in trouble, nearly dropped him at his own five-yard line, when he found a wide-open Austin Hooper for a game-breaking touchdown.

Some fans and analysts faulted Quintin Demps for this mishap, as you can see him vacating the deep middle early in the play. I disagree. Demps knew exactly what he was doing. This was a double team all the way on Falcons star Julio Jones, who the Bears game planned toward the entire game.

So who had Hooper? Well, look toward the middle of the screen. You can see four Bears, all clumped in the short middle, guarding a mere two Falcons. As color analyst Charles Davis pointed out, Hooper was linebacker Jerrell Freeman‘s responsibility. His lack of awareness in coverage cost the Bears dearly, as he let Hooper run free down the seam and had no idea that no one else was going to pick him up.

Here’s another instance where a linebacker needed to do better in coverage. This is a clear goal line set with Christian Jones matched up with a speedy, savvy route runner in veteran running back Theo Riddick. Jones lost position and allowed himself to be walled off by receiver TJ Jones, leading to a touchdown that I could have caught.

Upon a closer look, I deduce that whether the Lions’ Jones picked the Bears’ Jones successfully or not would not have mattered. At the moment of contact between the Joneses, Riddick (the faster player) already has momentum from starting on the backside of the play and is far enough outside that there’s no way that Jones, with his slow start, would have caught up to him enough to stop the touchdown.

This play was over before it started because Jones fails to recognize the play immediately and didn’t have enough athleticism to overcome it.

Here is where Smith comes in. His speed and quick thinking will come in handy in these circumstances. Watch this play in a matchup against Auburn. The camera angle doesn’t do a fantastic job of showing Smith’s entire plight, but it’s enough to get the point across.

Smith starts this play in what appears to be zone coverage over the middle of the field, lining up on the left hash of the 15-yard line. Subtly, immediately before he’s cut off the screen, his head turns and he picks up the receiver in the slot, closest to the right tackle, revealing that the coverage was a disguise (something Fangio loves to do) and he’s matched up one-on-one.

As the play collapses, Smith stays with his newfound man and tracks him all the way to the corner of the end zone. It’s mightily impressive than any inside linebacker can match up stride-for-stride with a wideout, especially for as long as he did with Auburn’s signal-caller extending the play.

The emphatic knockdown is what most viewers notice the most about this play, but by then his job had already been done. Swatting the ball away was the easiest part of Smith’s work in this particular instance. He recognized his responsibility immediately, was in perfect position the entire time, and stayed with his man all the way to the finish line. That’s the perfect example of a Fangio linebacker: smarts, instincts, speed, and deception.

Filling the Gap

Chicago’s defensive setup is predicated upon the big men up front (Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, specifically) occupying all the blockers they can and the off-ball players, along with the edge rushers, making plays in small spaces.

Multiple times this year, the Bears’ defenders failed to do this to a satisfying extent, and on this play, came up short in the form of a disaster. It involves a cornerback, Prince Amukamara, as the main culprit, but he was taking up responsibilities that Smith will often assume.

Stop the video right after the second yellow line is drawn, by color man Chris Spielman who also noticed who was at fault. Green Bay has blocked this touchdown run by Ty Montgomery quite nicely, with safety Eddie Jackson beautifully sealed off. Amukamara is the lone man unblocked and it was his assignment to fill the gap and make the play.

Amukamara (who otherwise had a fine season but I have no choice to be hard on him when analyzing this play) did the worst thing he could have possibly done, which was setting himself up on defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard‘s outside hip, thinking Montgomery was going to bump it outside. He also seemed unsure of himself, as he had his head on a swivel and his feet not chopping.

Not a chance. He turned his head and recognized the mistake, but by then it was two or three steps too late. Thanks to the tight formation and the loaded box, there was little to no safety help once the back got past the first wave. Touchdown, Packers. Amukamara played his gap tentatively and incorrectly, which led to a key moment in the game that was the final nail in John Fox’s coffin.

I could have found hundreds of clips displaying how good Roquan Smith is at filling gaps, but I chose two from his matchup against Mississippi State that prominently displayed his abilities.

The first video shown is truly awe-inspiring. The first thing he does is recognizes the play, which is an outside zone run (not power, the guard didn’t pull) to the strong side. Playing the weak side linebacker spot, Smith knows he has to beat the backside guard to the hole, which he does, preventing himself from getting walled off and taken out of the play.

From there, he attacks the gap like a heat-seeking missile, meeting the running back about a yard past the line of scrimmage and stopping him in his tracks. You see this over and over again when watching his film, that second gear he kicks into when he fills the gap, which is the opposite of what Chicago showed in the previous clip, and is vital to succeeding in their defensive system.

The second one displays less his natural talent (the speed and the physicality) and more of the vision that won him the Butkus Award for best linebacker in the country. The hole isn’t nearly as big this time, but if Smith had taken an improper angle or chosen a different direction, it was more than big enough for the back to pick up good yardage.

Smith pulls a “now you see me” act as he gets low on one side of the trenches, dives into the hole, and reappears with his arms wrapped around the runner’s legs in perfect tackling form. It may seem like a routine play, but in reality, this was one of the more impressive efforts in run stopping I saw in the entire draft class. The linemen did their jobs, as I mentioned before, by occupying blockers, and Smith worked in perfect harmony, making the play.

Sideline-to-Sideline Action

Another major aspect of Vic Fangio’s scheme is the off-ball linebackers covering the entire 53-yard field. On tosses, it’s primarily the edge rusher’s job to keep contain, while the inside guys need to stay with the sweep action and make the play. This was exemplified best on Mitch Trubisky‘s NFL debut on Monday Night Football against the Vikings, where the linebackers did not do their job and allowed another huge play.

Leonard Floyd had containment on this play and he did his job adequately. He was in not-so-great position initially but kept his feet driving in order to keep the play away from the sideline.

All that was left to do was for Christian Jones and/or Jonathan Anderson to make the tackle … but they were either walled off or on the ground. Jones, like the aforementioned touchdown against Detroit, was slow to read the pulling guards and recognize toss before he was sealed off and eventually put on the ground by receiver Michael Floyd.

Anderson, the backside backer, was actually closer to the play before he failed to beat out the center, who cut blocked him easily and took him out. After that, no one was left to stop McKinnon. He hit the hole, made one cut to set up a block on Eddie Jackson, and then he was gone. On the flip side, Smith excels at chasing down tosses and outside runs, as he showed early in the 2017 National Championship against Alabama.

This play by Smith was instrumental in getting Georgia an early lead. Alabama, whose teams are always one of or the (usually the) best in the country in terms of blocking technique, has this sweep set up perfectly. Superb blocks were made on the outside, and if you pause the clip once Smith and the runner, Josh Jacobs, are at the left hash, you can see the gaping hole between Damien Harris (#34 on Bama) and the slot receiver that could very well have led to a score.

Smith, however, makes a potentially touchdown-saving tackle in the open field. Jacobs actually did a nice job on this run of accelerating to the edge quickly and against most teams, this would be a big play.

The first thing that the Bears’ first rounder does is read the play immediately, as with every other clip of him in this article.

The second thing he does is actually a mistake. Watch his feet closely as the ball is snapped. It’s extremely subtle and you’ll need to slow it down to see it but he takes a false step. His first move is to pick his right foot up ever so slightly and put it down before taking his “power steps.” It’s wasted motion, which can doom a lot of players right after the snap.

Perhaps that slip-up makes this play even more impressive from Smith, whose “power steps” (which are what coaches call a linebacker’s first two steps toward the line of scrimmage) were quick enough and strong enough to move him up two yards as the handoff is made. Steps three and four take him to the line of scrimmage. As soon as that happens, it’s a one on one matchup between Smith and the back and I’ll take Smith any day.

Sure enough, his speed takes over and he makes the play. This is the kind of playmaking ability that stems from a lateral quickness and agility that will prove crucial to succeeding in a four-linebacker set.

Conclusion 

Of course, a fit with Vic Fangio for Roquan Smith can be deduced pretty easily with a quick Google search when you find out his measurables are eerily similar to those of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, Fangio’s dynamic duo in San Francisco.

However, his eventual role in the defense and perfect match for what the Bears will run this year goes far beyond height and weight. Smith’s full package provides the Bears with everything they need in an inside linebacker, as well as a guy who will step right onto the field on opening night and make plays.

On the morning of draft day, Fangio was out golfing when he got a hole in one. Turns out it wasn’t the only ace that the veteran defensive coordinator hit that day. The minute Smith was picked, he slotted into the Jack linebacker spot on the starting defense and that’s something that should make every Bears fan, in the words of general manager Ryan Pace, fired up.

Follow Jack Soble on Twitter — Video Credits: nfl.com, @AJIndDraft on YouTube, and PFF’s Sam Monson on Twitter — Featured Photo Credit: AP 

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2 comments on “Bears Film Study: Roquan Smith is the Perfect Fit in Vic Fangio’s Defense

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