The night that Roquan Smith was drafted there was a buzz around the Bears’ front office, Chicago’s defense and from the team’s passionate fanbase.
For Bears head coach Matt Nagy, he saw the former Georgia linebacker as someone who could play in any given situation.
“Well, for one he can play all three downs,” Nagy said in his press conference following the completion of the 2018 NFL Draft. “So he’s able to play in base and in sub, and he can cover, so you say okay, well, usually those type of guys with that size then they struggle in the run game. Well, that’s not necessarily the case with him. He doesn’t struggle in the run game. So that’s why he automatically becomes a top ten pick because of that.
“So offensively you look at a guy like that that can cover your tight ends and can also go ahead and cover your running backs when you can do both of those things on defense. For us offensively, you look at that and say okay … we got to figure out another route to go. But for him, he can do it all.”
Looking back at how Nagy described Smith and comparing that to his 2019 season, the former No. 8 overall pick hasn’t lived up to being a three-down linebacker, and that has to change with Smith now in his third season.
Out of the 150 total third down snaps that Smith was eligible to play in last season prior to his Week 14 pectoral injury, he missed 25 of them. And it wasn’t injuries that kept the linebacker on the sideline. Instead, it was defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano’s in-game adjustments.
Missing roughly 16 percent of third down plays may not seem too significant, but it’s odd that Smith wasn’t on the field in the first place given the importance of the down.
(If you want to get a better understanding of how important third down is from an offensive perspective, check out this article from Sharp Football Analysis.)
In 2019, the Bears finished as the No. 7 ranked defense in third down conversion percentage, limiting opponents to a 36.4 percent rate, according to Team Rankings’ website. But when Smith was off the field in the games that he played (but not including the remaining 11 third down snaps after Smith was injured vs. the Cowboys), offenses converted 40 percent of their third down attempts.
Depending on the down and distance, it’s expected that defenses will adjust their personnel, especially on third-and-long plays. However, at times throughout the 2019 season, Smith was also replaced in short-yardage situations.
On this third-and-1 play against the Oakland Raiders in Week 5, Smith was substituted for nickelback Buster Skrine. Prior to this Josh Jacobs run, the rookie running back had 10 rushes for 57 yards. Jacobs stayed patient, read his blocks and gained two yards to pick up the first down.
As seen above, Smith was taken out and Danny Trevathan was the lone inside linebacker on the play. When Pagano delegated to have one of the two in the game when both linebackers were healthy, it was always Trevathan on the field.
An argument can be made that Trevathan should be the primary linebacker on third downs. He is in his ninth season and is the leader of the defense, but Smith was a top-10 draft pick and should be gradually developing to be the signal caller for Pagano’s unit. Also, it gives Trevathan, who has been injured throughout his career, a chance to get a rest.
But even in the Week 11 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams, the game following Trevathan’s season-ending injury, there was one instance when Pagano chose to keep Nick Kwiatkoski in the game instead of Smith.
Initially, Smith was on the field for a third-and-1 attempt, but the play was blown dead after Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp had a false start. For the third-and-6 play, safety Deon Bush came in for Smith and Kwiatkoski was the inside linebacker. Rams quarterback Jared Goff ended up completing a 51-yard pass to Kupp, and the Rams scored a touchdown on the next play.
Even if Smith had been in the game for those two third down plays, that doesn’t guarantee the Bears would have had better success, but it’s still interesting that he was on the sidelines.
The most questionable personnel decision of 2019, though, came against the Eagles in Week 9. With 8:39 left in the fourth quarter and the Bears down by five at Lincoln Financial Field, the home team ended the game with a 16-play, 69-yard drive that took 8:14 off the clock.
Chicago’s defense faced five third down attempts on the drive. For three of those five crucial snaps, the Bears were without one of their best defenders in Smith. In place for Smith on two of the third down attempts was nine-year veteran Sherrick McManis, and the Eagles converted on both. On the last third down, defensive end Brent Urban was in the game and the Bears finally made the stop.
The question people may be wondering is, why Smith is being taken out at times on third down? I’m not going to pretend to know the answer, but it could be a multitude of reasons.
One could be a trust and comfortability factor between Pagano and Smith. Last season was the first the two were together, and Pagano chose to have the more experienced Trevathan on the field in sub-packages.
Another reason could revolve around Smith’s inconsistent play in pass coverage. According to Pro Football Focus and The Draft Network’s Benjamin Solak, Smith wasn’t the best in coverage, so it made sense to sub out Smith on obvious passing situations.
Regardless of why Smith was missing on third downs, it just needs to stop happening for this season and the ones moving forward. Smith was drafted to make an impact on Chicago’s defense, and there is no doubt he has done that through two seasons, but there is still plenty more to see from the young linebacker.
When Pagano was asked about Smith in his video conference on Aug. 6, he said the 23-year-old is “going to have a phenomenal year.” According to Pagano, Smith is not only “in the best shape of his life” but “he’s got a much better understanding from a coverage standpoint,” and that can all be attributed to how he worked in the offseason.
The best way for Pagano to test if Smith truly has made improvements heading into Year 3 is to have him on the field, especially when the defense needs him the most on third downs.