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Emma’s Tailgater: How Montez Sweat has changed the game for Bears

2 months agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Back during his rookie season in 2017, Eddie Jackson was part of a budding Bears defense that was on the brink of becoming great. Then came the cornerstone acquisition in Khalil Mack, the All-Pro pass rusher who elevated that entire group to the top of the NFL.

Jackson knew well what it could mean for the Bears when they made a bold move with the Commanders to land star pass rusher Montez Sweat. They were bringing in a game-changing talent whose impact would be felt by this entire defense.

“Oh, man, we got another baller to add to the roster,” Jackson recalled saying to himself when the Bears struck their trade deadline deal for Sweat.

The Bears have already found the importance of “The Tez Effect,” as head coach Matt Eberflus calls it. Sweat’s instant impact reminds of what Mack brought for the Bears back in 2018.

Sweat, 27, has 6 sacks over just six games with the Bears. He is the team’s leader in sacks – and still stands as the Commanders’ leader in sacks with 6.5 over his eight games in Washington.

Sweat set his sights on reaching double-digit sacks this season for the first time in his career. He’s up to 12.5 sacks through 14 games.

“Now we’re just adding on,” Sweat said with a smile.

The decision by general manager Ryan Poles to make this trade for Sweat came under great scrutiny. At the time on Oct. 31, the Bears held a 2-6 record and were struggling through the second season of Poles’ rebuilding plan. This seemed to be the move that a contender makes, looking to fortify its championship aspirations. What complicated this acquisition was the fact that Sweat was playing out the final season of his rookie contract and set to become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason.

Poles’ bold vision was that Sweat would be a catalyst for growth among this young defense. The Bears signed Sweat to a four-year, $98.5-million deal just four days after the trade and have seen him transform this unit as hoped.

Though the Bears (5-9) are nearly eliminated from playoff contention as they prepare to host the Cardinals (3-11) on Christmas Eve at Soldier Field, they have seen their defense take form for the future in large part because of Sweat’s arrival.

After forcing just 9 turnovers in their first 10 games, the Bears have 14 takeaways in their last four contests. Sweat has altered how opposing offenses must view this defensive identity – and created opportunities for his teammates.

Rookie defensive tackle Gervon Dexter has suddenly revealed great growth, recording a pair of split sacks in the last two games. Both of those were shared with Sweat, as they teamed up to take down the quarterback.

“When you have a dominant edge rusher,” Dexter said, “for a guy like me at 3-tech or at D-tackle, when you have a guy like that that’s going to make that pocket collapse a little bit, that quarterback sees an escape to take the ‘A’ or ‘B’ gap, it makes it a lot easier. All you got to do is maybe snatch off a block or make that easy play when you got a guy like Montez rushing off the edge.

“Once he got here, a lot of things opened up. Especially for the D-line. A lot of things opened up. We got better as a unit. When you get a guy like that, that’s going to happen.”

The Bears have felt it at the second level of their defense, too, where their linebackers have thrived this season. The trio of T.J. Edwards, Tremaine Edmunds and Jack Sanborn can play free because of what Sweat means for their defensive front.

“Someone that the opposing offense has got to account for right away,” Sanborn said. “I mean, an impactful rusher, anyone on the line that can just impact a game – when it’s tough to go one-on-one against – you got to account for them, you got to slide to them, you got to add extra guys in, you got to have guys chip where they can’t get out right away and there are only so many route combinations you can have off that. It means a lot. I think you’re seeing that.”

Sweat has recorded 31 pressures in six games with the Bears, according to Pro Football Focus. That includes three games with seven registered pressures.

With Sweat creating disruption in the pocket, the Bears has taken advantage against opposing quarterbacks. Edmunds has 3 interceptions over the last four games, Edwards, Jaylon Johnson and Tyrique Stevenson each have a pair of picks, while Jaquan Brisker, Kyler Gordon and Jackson hauled one in as well. 

Sweat has also bolstered the Bears’ top-ranked run defense as a player who sets the edge. He ranks seventh among all edge defenders in Pro Football Focus run defense grades.

“The character of our defense and personality of our defense, he just meshes very well,” Jackson said.

In looking ahead to 2024, the Bears hope to emerge as a legitimate contender with aspirations to win the NFC North. It would mark the completion of this plan set by Poles and the start a new opportunity for this team. On the back of this defense, those goals become more attainable. 

Sweat is ready to elevate the Bears to new heights.

“I’m hoping to lead anybody who’s ready to follow,” he said.

‘Couldn’t see myself anywhere else’

At the very core, Jaylon Johnson has simply been seeking respect for his name.

All along, Johnson has believed that he is one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL and set out to prove it this season. He has done just that, recording 4 interceptions in 12 games this season. Opposing receivers are averaging just 4.9 yards per target against Johnson, this on a 54.5% completion percentage. Johnson ranks first among 119 NFL cornerbacks this season, according to Pro Football Focus grades. 

Johnson knows that it’s not just respect he’s earning this season. He has changed the dynamic at the negotiating table in seeking a long-term contract extension.

“I definitely say I’ve added some money to that value,” Johnson said.

The 24-year-old Johnson is playing the final season of his rookie contract and is set to become an unrestricted free agent by March. But that may never be the case after all.

Johnson and the Bears have been negotiating terms for a contract extension, a process that has been arduous at times. In late October, Johnson requested a move from the Bears ahead of the NFL’s trade deadline. That never came to fruition as the Bears sought a first- or high second-round pick in return for Johnson.

“I don’t want to lose Jaylon Johnson,” Poles said in early November. “If I were to lose Jaylon Johnson, I would like to have a high percentage on hitting on another Jaylon Johnson.”

The ultimate fate for Johnson could be the franchise tag being utilized by Poles, keeping him with the Bears through the 2024 season. Johnson would be paid north of $18 million with the franchise tag, a price he’s plenty comfortable with.

But Johnson and the Bears could still work out a contract extension before that point in March. It would solidify the future for a player in Johnson who has enjoyed a breakthrough season and proven himself as one of the game’s top cover cornerbacks.

Johnson likely would not hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent. For his part, he hopes that never happens either. 

“I just couldn’t see myself anywhere else,” Johnson said. “It’s easy to say, oh, you want out of somewhere until you get it and then it’s like, ‘Ah, this may not be quite what I want.’ But I would say for me, I want to stay here and I want to not make that transition now. I feel like we’re building something special, too, especially with the guys in the locker room. I mean, it’s something I can’t get anywhere else. I would like to stay and continue to build, make it better. And (shoot), I want to win some games and get to the playoffs and make a push with the Chicago name, too.”

Evaluating Getsy’s future

Luke Getsy has fought back against the notion that he’s frustrated by the struggles and inconsistencies of his Bears offense.

The Bears rank 22nd in the NFL for both scoring and yardage. They have averaged 20.5 points per game this season, though success has been the outlier. Chicago has scored 20 points or fewer in nine of its 14 contests. 

“I mean, there’s nothing out there honestly that’s sitting there making me (frustrated),” Getsy said. “Where we want to go, we know that we have to execute better. Period. More consistently is probably the way to say it. … That’s what we’re looking for – looking for that promise, looking for that growth, and if we can hit this thing consistently, I think we’re just going to take off where everybody wants it to go.”

Getsy has pointed to his belief that the Bears are progressing – a conviction that has not seemed clear throughout the course of this season. Whether that’s indeed the case will be decided at the conclusion of this season.

Getsy’s fate will be decided either by Matt Eberflus or alongside him, depending on whether the Bears elect to clean house with this coaching staff. If Eberflus is indeed retained for a third season, it may be his decision on whether Getsy should return as offensive coordinator.

Given that Eberflus is a defensive-minded head coach and a career defensive assistant, Getsy is truly at the helm of this offense.

“I love Luke,” Eberflus said. “He’s a great leader in terms of in the room. I’ll evaluate everything at the end.”

As a play-caller, Getsy’s work has been called to the forefront on many occasions these two seasons. That is part of the job, which he has acknowledged all along. But this is a results-based business and Getsy’s body of work has become difficult to defend. The Bears were 23rd in scoring last season and have marginally improved to 22nd through 15 weeks this season. Chicago is 8-23 overall in Eberflus’ regime.

Eberflus’ calling card is the improvement of this defense. But with that, the struggles of this stagnant offense have put Getsy’s responsibility under the microscope.

Whether Eberflus is retained or removed as head coach, Getsy’s future as the Bears’ offensive coordinator has become increasingly cast into doubt.

“We’re going to assess all those things at the end,” Eberflus said. “And we’ve got to play these games right here, right now. So, we’re going to focus on being our best when our best is required, and that’s required today.”

Checking in with Bagent

Tyson Bagent hasn’t had time to assess his own performance over four games as the Bears’ starting quarterback in place of an injured Justin Fields. That type of in-depth evaluation will occur once the offseason begins.

But the 23-year-old Bagent has spent time reflecting on how he as an undrafted free agent out of Division-II Shepherd University got his opportunity as a starting quarterback in the NFL.

“It meant the world to me, my family,” Bagent said. “A lot of people didn’t think it was possible to be able to defy the odds in a sense. Really, I worked so hard, kind of my whole life, leading up to those moments.”

Bagent threw for 859 yards, 3 touchdowns and 6 interceptions over parts of five games after Fields suffered a fracture to his right thumb during a game Oct. 15 at Soldier Field. He was required to miss four games over the next month, leaving Bagent as the Bears’ starting quarterback. Chicago went 2-2 in the four starts led by Bagent.

While Bagent plans to spend much of this offseason back home in West Virginia, he also is forming a plan for improvement that will take him elsewhere in the United States. Bagent plans to seek out proven trainers and coaches who could help him improve as a quarterback – and specifically with his arm strength.

Bagent will be looking for a program that can help him make great strides this season.

“I look forward to taking leaps and bounds in every category of my game every offseason,” Bagent said. “That’s what I look forward to do. Be as athletic as I possibly can, become as dynamic of a thrower as I possibly can, and just not even give people an option to get rid of me anytime soon.”

Foreman hopes to stay

Veteran rusher D’Onta Foreman is playing for his third team in as many years, and his fourth franchise since breaking into the NFL back in 2017. With each stop along the way, he has embraced being called upon.

Foreman was cast aside by the Bears as a healthy scratch early this season, then ultimately brought forth to carry the load as the team’s leading back. He has carried 109 times for 425 yards and 4 scores over nine games this season.

It hasn’t come easy for Foreman at times, but he is happy with what the Bears have brought him. The 27-year-old Foreman has enjoyed being the catalyst for team growth this season as the Bears have emerged from their rebuilding mode with goals of sustained success in the future.

“I mean, I’m grateful,” Foreman said. “Very grateful. Thankful for the opportunity. I just wanted to seize my moment and not look back, not take it for granted. I enjoy what I do. When I’m out there, I’m productive. I want to continue to be that. 

“I signed here for a reason. I signed here to try to turn this around and be a part of that. I think I’m getting that opportunity, and I want to continue to excel and try to get us over the hump.”

Foreman is working on a one-year deal worth north of $1.5 million and set once again to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. It sets up the possibility he will playing for his fourth team in four years next season.

Foreman understands the nature of the business, but he hopes to find stability and stay with the Bears.

“Every team I’ve been on, I kind of wanted to be there and stay there,” Foreman said. “It’s no different here. I’ve gotten used to the guys here and used to being here. I enjoy being here and everything. It was kind of tough early on, but I’ve been enjoying it. Of course, I want to be here.

“I see what’s going on, the difference we’re making and I’ve been a part of helping us win some games and get on that trend north. Of course, I want to be here to continue to go up and do the right things, but I also understand this is a business. Whatever is meant to be will be. I’m a firm believer in that.”

No. 1 pick watch

In seeking a place at the top of the 2024 NFL Draft, the city of Chicago faces a fascinating dilemma. Should Bears fans root for the Packers on Sunday?

The Packers travel to Carolina to take on the Panthers (2-12), who have a one-game edge on the Patriots (3-11) and Cardinals (3-11) for the No. 1 overall pick. The Bears need a victory from the rival Packers – which of course would represent another important loss for the Panthers. 

The Bears have an 81.6% projection of selecting with the first overall pick, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index analytics. That figure was at 94.9% before last Sunday, when the Panthers clawed their way to a 9-7 win over the Falcons to snap a six-game losing skid.

The Patriots are presently positioned with the No. 2 overall pick as they prepare to take on the Broncos on Sunday in Denver. The Cardinals are in line with the No. 3 selection as they travel to Chicago for a meeting with the Bears, whose own draft pick is stationed at No. 5 overall.

Injury report

TE Cole Kmet (quad) — Kmet has never missed a game during his four-year career, but a quad injury in practice Thursday could threaten that streak.

LG Teven Jenkins (concussion) — Jenkins must clear the concussion protocol by pregame Sunday in order to play.

DE DeMarcus Walker (leg) — The Bears believe that Walker should be ready to go for Sunday’s game.

WR Equanimeous St. Brown (pectoral) — This is a multi-week absence that will keep St. Brown out for another week of action.

RB Travis Homer (hamstring) — The veteran running back and specialist is dealing with a hamstring injury.

CB Jaylon Jones (calf) — The second-year player Jones has worked on 76% of the Bears’ special teams snaps this season. 

LB Noah Sewell (knee) — This multi-week injury may sideline Sewell for another week.

Quote to note

“Adversity, it brings out the character in a team and the character in a person. I look at it as a prerequisite of advancement. As long as we take it like that, as long as that’s our mentality, you know nothing can stop us.”

–Tremaine Edmunds

Emma’s Prediction (9-5): Bears 27, Cardinals 16

The Bears will bounce back from their catastrophic loss with a spirited win on Christmas Eve at Soldier Field.

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