Another week, another successful outing for the best defense in the NFL. Led by Khalil Mack and Eddie Jackson, the Bears held Detroit to a mere 16 points and made Matthew Stafford attempt only two passes that traveled 15 air yards or more – one was completed, the other was intercepted.
That being said, Chicago’s second phase was nowhere near as good on Thanksgiving as it has the potential to be in its final form. Part of that was fatigue due to a tiny turnaround, and another part of it was poor snap count management. That being said, there is reason to hope that the Bears will morph into a historically monstrous defense, and it has to with a talented rookie linebacker who has his flaws right now but is only going to get better.
This is what I learned after going through the tape of Bears @ Lions.
Roquan Smith had himself a day, but there is still room to grow (and that’s not a bad thing).
It’s quite difficult to remember a first-round pick for the Bears as universally praised as the selection of Roquan Smith out of Georgia. In his time in navy and orange thus far, he has shown why.
Let’s start off with his most polished trait at the moment, in terms of skill and technique: blitzing. Smith has four sacks this season, which is tied for second on the team with Akiem Hicks, and all have come on designed blitzes like this one:
On this sack, Smith benefits from two things. A. The presence of Khalil Mack, who occupies the guard and leaves Smith one-on-one with Theo Riddick, and B. His understanding of linebacker blitzing form.
Smith approaches his blocker at full speed but doesn’t make the common mistake of taking the back head-on. Instead, he gets skinny and attacks half a man, narrowing Riddick’s target and putting Smith in better position for his next move. Said next move comes as soon as Riddick drops his head, when Smith swipes his blocker out of the way with two hands (a common pass rush move) and earned himself a clear path to Matthew Stafford. As soon as that happens, Stafford has no chance and the sack is complete.
In this next clip, Smith shows why he can get around the “too small” pre-draft concerns with speed and (more importantly) instincts. The 2017 Butkus Award winner is the responsibility of the left guard on this play, but when Smith diagnosed the play, there was no way on earth he was making this block.
Here, we have a classic cutback play in which the line blocks to the gap on the defense’s right, forcing the linebackers to flow in that direction, but the fullback comes across the formation and kicks out the end on the left. This play is completely dependent on Smith flowing too far to the right and putting himself in position to be walled off, but he doesn’t do that.
Smith is reading the fullback all the way, and when he sees him cutting across the formation, he knows exactly where the play is going. As a result, he cut back towards the play side, mirroring LeGarrette Blount‘s eventual path, and put himself in a position where the only block that the guard could make would push Smith directly to the ball.
Smith got some help from Leonard Floyd, who played this perfectly and embarrassed the fullback, but he made the tackle for loss because he diagnosed the play early and blew it up before Blount gained any ground whatsoever.
Instincts and speed played a major role in this stop on second and medium, where Smith arrived at the receiver and eventual ball carrier almost as quickly as the ball got to him. But what I want to highlight is how he broke down and made the tackle. As he approaches the NFL logo, Smith decelerates, and his feet widen and start chopping (aka his steps become shorter), which is textbook open field tackling form.
This is a major sign of improvement, because I can highlight two plays off the top of my head in which poor technique in this regard came back to bite him and the Bears: one against Arizona and one against Buffalo.
Finally, here is an area where Smith must still improve: pad level and form tackling in open space (a different area of form tackling in open space than the one in the previous paragraphs; this one deals with the point of attack and wrapping up).
Smith did well to track down the pass catcher (Riddick) and put himself in position to make a play, but he almost let him escape. Why? He’s too high and he relied too much on his arms to bring him down. It’s much easier to make a tackle if you lower your shoulder and make that the first point of contact, and that’s what Smith failed to do.
This is not the first time this has happened in the last two weeks. Against the Vikings, his whiff cost Chicago much more than it did on Thanksgiving:
All of that being said, I have the utmost confidence in Roquan Smith to correct this mistake because it’s clear on film that he’s getting better every week. He’s constantly learning, adapting, and making himself and therefore his team better on a weekly basis. Smith is going to be a problem for opposing offenses, and it’s very conceivable that he ends up being the second best player on the 2019 Bears defense.
That would bump Hicks down to third on the totem pole, behind Smith and Mack. And if Akiem Hicks, a top-five defensive tackle in the NFL, is the third best player on the Bears’ defense, good luck to the NFC.
Other film notes
-A LeGarrette Blount carry was essentially accepting second or third and ten in the four weeks leading up to Bears @ Lions, but he ran quite well on Turkey Day (19 carries, 88 yards, two touchdowns), especially in the second half.
Why did this happen? For a couple reasons. First of all, Akiem Hicks looked gassed on tape. He was being driven back, and just not looking like himself for most of the third and fourth quarter. This has to do with the infuriatingly short week, plus Hicks’s snap count rose for some reason, from a more appropriate 79 percent last week to 86 percent. Vic Fangio should keep Hicks to under 80 percent from here on out.
Also, the non-boundary members of the secondary (Bryce Callahan, Adrian Amos, Eddie Jackson) did not tackle well. When forced into action, Blount and Riddick either went around or went through Chicago’s defensive backs. That’s something to monitor next week against Giants’ sensation Saquon Barkley.
-Luck played a role in the Bears allowing more points than they should have on Thursday as well. Detroit was gifted seven points when a pass deflected by Danny Trevathan wound up in the hands of Lions fullback Nick Bellore. Not only did the deflection not help, there’s a decent chance Adrian Amos would have intercepted it if not for some friendly fire from Prince Amukamara.
-Speaking of Trevathan, the veteran linebacker snuffed out and squashed another screen pass attempt this week, just like against the Vikings. His instincts have been superb this season in that regard, and his play might be the most underrated on Chicago’s defense this year (other than Eddie Goldman).
-In the fourth quarter, Blount caught a pass and took it into the Bears’ red zone with nobody covering him. I wanted to find out why:
Seeing it live, I wondered why Blount was left so wide open here. My best guess is a missed assignment from Leonard Floyd. pic.twitter.com/fomaqjt1JA
— Jack Soble (@jacksobleTLS) November 25, 2018
Each week, I’ll be posting a thread on twitter (@jacksobleTLS) with numerous clips, describing how the Bears’ gift from Oakland impacted Chicago’s chances of victory. This week: living in Matthew Stafford’s head.
Inspired by @JoeyProspects’s weekly Mitch thread, I’ve decided to do something similar, but with Khalil Mack and how much he impacts the game on a weekly basis.
This week: a case study in “if Mack isn’t producing, it’s usually because the offense is afraid of him.”
— Jack Soble (@jacksobleTLS) November 25, 2018
Low points: three Bears on the ground, and they didn’t get there in great ways.
This is the visual representation of “Hicks was gassed and the secondary didn’t tackle well.” Eddie Jackson and Bryce Callahan each received a Thanksgiving-sized portion of broken ankles, and Hicks had pancakes for breakfast at one point during Thursday’s game.
High point: Eddie Jackson does it again
There’s not much I can say about Eddie Jackson’s third touchdown of the season and fifth since 2017 that hasn’t already been said. This was a combination of film study, conviction on his reads, and ball-hawking greatness. He read this flat route from the tight end the entire way, meaning that the touchdown was essentially scored before the ball was snapped.
Jackson is playing at an All-Pro level this season, and he’s not slowing down any time soon.
Follow Jack on Twitter-Feature Photo Credit: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune