In­side line­backer has the tal­ent but needs the con­sis­tency in 3rd year

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - jlieser@sun­ | @Ja­sonLieser BEARS BEAT JA­SON LIESER

All the Bears want from in­side line­backer Ro­quan Smith is a bor­ing — beau­ti­fully bor­ing — sea­son. Some­thing along the lines of 100plus tack­les, a hand­ful of turnovers and zero causes for con­cern would be per­fect.

Smith re­mains a bit of an enigma as he en­ters his third sea­son. He’s very good and has the po­ten­tial to be great. All-Pro is cer­tainly on the table for this guy. But the Bears need him to stay healthy and en­gaged.

No wor­ries, Smith said Wed­nes­day. No mat­ter what you saw on In­sta­gram or wher­ever else, re­gard­less of the chal­lenges pre­sented by the pan­demic and even with him re­hab­bing a torn pec­toral mus­cle, he de­scribed his prepa­ra­tion for this sea­son as ideal.

‘‘Hon­estly, I thought this was the best off­sea­son I’ve had,” Smith said. “I was able to fo­cus on my­self, home in on all the lit­tle de­tails . . . so I'm just ex­cited to show­case it.”

He was in the process of do­ing that last sea­son when he stun­ningly stepped away from the team the morn­ing of its Week 4 home game against the Vik­ings. Less than two hours be­fore kick­off, the Bears down­graded his sta­tus to doubt­ful, then shortly ruled him out.

Adding to the cu­rios­ity of the sit­u­a­tion, Smith was at Sol­dier Field and watched the game from the side­line.

All the odd­i­ties sur­round­ing his ab­sence never were ex­plained be­yond say­ing he missed the game for per­sonal rea­sons, and he was back in the start­ing lineup a week later when the Bears played in Lon­don. Amaz­ingly in to­day’s en­vi­ron­ment, he and the team have man­aged to keep the real story a se­cret.

Smith is cer­tainly en­ti­tled to his pri­vacy, but the ef­fects of what­ever kept him out that day lin­gered. A month later, de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Chuck Pagano was still fight­ing off questions about why he didn’t look right. Smith fi­nally snuffed out the un­cer­tainty with a big game against the Charg­ers at the end of Oc­to­ber.

“It just took awhile for ev­ery­body to see it and for him to feel like him­self,” fel­low in­side line­backer Danny Tre­vathan said.

Sadly for Smith, his resur­gence was short-lived. He headed to in­jured re­serve with the pec­toral in­jury in early De­cem­ber and fin­ished with 101 tack­les in 12 games.

What­ever the rea­sons were, it was a stilted and frus­trat­ing sea­son. It weighed on him through­out the last sev­eral months and left him un­ful­filled as he eyed his next chance, which comes a week from Sun­day at the Lions.

“I'm very ex­cited — I think I have a lot to prove,” Smith said.

That’s true on mul­ti­ple fronts. This es­sen­tially will be a con­tract year for Smith. The Bears have to de­cide on his 2022 op­tion based on how he plays this sea­son, or if he’s con­vinc­ing enough, they could se­cure him with a long-term ex­ten­sion.

And de­spite be­ing only 23, Smith isn’t a kid any­more. He’s well past the point of be­ing Tre­vathan’s ap­pren­tice. He’s a full part­ner now and should have as much of a voice within the de­fense as any other vet­eran.

“I def­i­nitely feel like the role is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from ini­tially when you’re a wide-eyed rookie and you’re com­ing in not know­ing much,” Smith said. “I def­i­nitely think [re­spon­si­bil­i­ties] do in­crease a lit­tle bit.”

Hope­fully he’s ready for that be­cause the Bears’ run de­fense is bank­ing on him be­ing full-go in ev­ery as­pect. The team was ninth in fewest rush­ing yards al­lowed per game (102) and tied for fourth in yards al­lowed per carry (3.9) last sea­son de­spite fre­quently play­ing from be­hind, but it had bet­ter depth with start­ing-qual­ity line­backer Nick Kwiatkoski avail­able.

With him gone to the Raiders, there’s no ob­vi­ous re­in­force­ment be­hind Smith and Tre­vathan go­ing into the sea­son. They’re both in­dis­pens­able. And with Tre­vathan now in his 30s, it’s time for Smith to take the lead.


Bears in­side line­backer Ro­quan Smith (58) needs to stay healthy and en­gaged this sea­son.

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