Roquan Smith and the re-buillt Bears’ defense are going into the season opener against the 49ers Sunday with supreme confidence. Asked to pick a player who will surprise people this season, Smith couldn’t pick one.
“Honestly, I think all 11 are going to surprise everyone,” Smith said, “with how we’re going to run to the ball and hit anything that moves.”
That sets the stage for an immediate challenge against the 49ers at Soldier Field. In particular, the Bears will be tested by one unknown factor in 49ers first-year starting quarterback Trey Lance and one well-known weapon in do-it-all wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
Lance sat behind Jimmy Garoppolo for all but two games as a rookie last season, including the 49ers’ 33-22 victory over the Bears at Soldier Field in Week 8. But Samuel was a star in that game. The 6-0, 215-pound Samuel — a second-round pick from South Carolina in 2019 –caught six passes for 171 yards.
It was an early glimpse of Samuel’s versatility that would earn him a three-year, $71.6 million contract ($58.1 million guaranteed). Samuel burned the Bears with a 50-yard catch downfield in the final seconds of the first half that set up a field goal. In the second half, he took a screen pass in the backfield and raced through the Bears’ defense for an 83-yard play that set up a touchdown.
“Amazing player,” Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. “He does it all. It’ll be a tough challenge. He’s good with the ball in his hands, whether he’s catching a pass or they’re handing it off to him.
“He’s great getting on an edge. Some people — maybe the casual fan — would go, ‘He’s just a perimeter player.’ But they run him up the middle also. He breaks tackles. It’s going to be an extremely tough challenge for us.”
Though Samuel is an elusive player, Williams said aggressiveness and physicality are part of the plan to limit his production.
“With our defense, we’re getting seven-plus [players] to the football,” Williams said. “We’re swarming to the ball, making sure we’re gap sound. We have to make sure our eyes are in the right place. You’ll see all this eye candy going all over the place — you have to make sure you’re looking at what you’re supposed to look at and not get distracted by all the things going in different directions. We have to to tackle. Football is a physical game. We have to hit.”
Smith added an even more practical point — the key to stopping Samuel is to not let him get started. In Samuel’s top four games last season, he averaged 168.8 receiving yards and 21.1 yards per catch. In his bottom four games, he averaged 25 receiving yards and 13.5 yards per catch.
“It’s going to start with stopping the run,” Smith said. “When you’re stopping the run, you can make a team one-dimensional –that’s going to obviously open things up for a lot more things and put us in a lot better position.”
Lance, on the other hand, is a bigger x-factor. He started two games last season — with a 58.4 passer rating against the Cardinals in Week 5; and a 116.0 rating against the Texans in Week 17.
The one threat between the two games was Lance’s running ability — 16 rushes for 89 yards against the Cardinals; and eight rushes for 31 yards against the Texans.
“You have to project how they’re going to use [him],” Bears coach Matt Eberflus said. “We have an idea of what the offense looks like, but how they’re going to use him, no one really knows. You’re going to use your rules and have your calls and make sure you’re sound [in] what you’re doing.”