CHICAGO -- In the bright lights of the prominent Thursday night NFL season opener last September, Roquan Smith shot through a gap on the left side of the Green Bay offensive line and made a fine ankle tackle of Packers running back Aaron Jones for no gain.
On the next snap, Aaron Rodgers ran a play fake and Jones tried sneaking out of the back side of the formation for a screen pass, but Smith deftly avoided the block by center Corey Linsley and again tackled Jones for no gain.
The Packers faced third-and-10 just 30 seconds into the game, the first of seven third-and-7 or more situations Green Bay would have in a slog against the Bears defense. Consecutive snaps offered only a brief snapshot, but it sure presented evidence Smith, the eighth overall pick in 2018 who missed most of training camp his rookie season in a contract negotiation, was poised for a monster breakout season.
Smith's strong start to 2019 -- he was credited with 13 tackles the next week in a victory at Denver -- wasn't sustained. He missed the Week 4 game against the Vikings for personal reasons and didn't record double-digit tackles again until Week 9. He picked up again later in the season with 16 tackles and two sacks in the Nov. 28 Thanksgiving Day victory at Detroit, but was injured (torn pectoral muscle) the following week against Dallas and missed the rest of the season.
Now healthy again, Smith and Danny Trevathan, who missed seven games himself because of injury, are back at the center of a Bears defense attempting to regain the dominant form of 2018 without nose tackle Eddie Goldman in the middle as a run-stuffing force.
Goldman's decision to opt out, which players have uniformly supported, creates an immediate challenge for a run defense that dropped from the top in the league in 2018 to No. 9 a year ago and complicates matters for Smith and Trevathan as they attempt to hunt down ball carriers.
"Man, Eddie's a huge part," Trevathan said when asked to assess the loss. "Huge, huge, role to this defense. I kind of chatted with him this offseason a little bit. So, I kind of sensed (Goldman might opt out). Eddie is a hard worker. He never complains. He's one of those guys who puts his head down and goes to work.
"To have him not here, we're definitely missing a key part. But I think the guys that they brought in and they're going to have to step up. They're going to have to step up and it's our job to push them each day to get to that level of play."
The Bears -- because Smith and Trevathan run so well -- often leave both on the field in sub packages, instead removing a lineman to bring an extra defensive back on the field. Their ability to make plays from sideline to sideline gives coordinator Chuck Pagano expanded flexibility and makes the Bears formidable through the middle with free safety Eddie Jackson on the back end.
If the defense is to be great again, Smith and Trevathan will have to not only stay on the field this season, but elevate their level of play. Coaches have raved about the shape Smith arrived in following offseason rehabilitation -- 234 pounds with more lean mass. Considering his movement skills, he's fortunate to be coming off an upper body injury and not one that could affect his speed. The only benefit to his pectoral injury was Smith was permitted to rehab at Halas Hall during the offseason and therefore was under the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Jason Loscalzo.