Jaquan Brisker has a chance to become the first defensive back in Chicago Bears history to lead the team in sacks.
While Brisker being atop the current list with three sacks is quite an indictment of the front seven, it says plenty about the rookie strong safety’s versatility, something the team hopes to tap into during the final four games.
Brisker returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since before the Nov. 20 road loss to the Atlanta Falcons when he suffered a concussion that sidelined him for two games. Cornerback Kyler Gordon, also sidelined by a concussion in that game, also was back at practice, putting the second-round draft picks in line to start Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, who come to Soldier Field as the NFL’s top scoring team.
Brisker played 53 of the 55 snaps in the 27-24 loss to the Falcons, removed for a play in the first quarter and another in the third to be examined for a potential concussion. His head slammed into Falcons tight end MyCole Pruitt on the first play when he tackled quarterback Marcus Mariota. On the second, Brisker grabbed his head after assisting on a tackle on Coradarrelle Patterson. In each instance, Brisker returned after missing only one play.
The NFL has independent neurological consultants on the sideline who are involved, so it’s not as if the Bears gave Brisker a cursory check and ran him back onto the field.
“I passed all the protocols that we went through,” he said. “Went to the tent to see if I had good balance and things like that. I passed everything, so right after that went into the game.”
Brisker said he felt fine during the game and afterward. It wasn’t until the following day that he realized something was amiss.
“It was a little weird because I felt a little normal,” he said. “Once I came back into the facility, that’s when it started to hit me that I didn’t feel normal when I woke back up.”
With the all-clear, Brisker can pick up with the list of small improvements coaches have prepared for players coming out of the bye week.
“Really for him, it’s just about footwork,” coach Matt Eberflus said. “When he’s down low, his footwork, when he’s playing man, also when he’s deep, being able to run to the alley and being able to create the angles he needs to to get the guy on the ground if the ball comes through there.
“It’s about continuing to improve and do a really good job with his blitzing. He’s a really good blitzer. We like to send him a lot. We’re pleasantly surprised where he is, where he’s grown to. Every time we’ve asked him to do something to get better at, he’s done it. We’re excited to see where this is going.”
The pass-rushing element of Brisker’s game is interesting. He has a nuanced feel for the timing required to get a free run at the quarterback — which not every defensive back possesses. Believe it or not, Brisker didn’t have a single sack in three seasons at Penn State.
But playing for Lackawanna College, a junior college in Scranton, Pa., that also produced 2015 Bears first-round pick Kevin White, Brisker had nine sacks in 10 games as the top defensive player on a team that capped an 11-0 season with a 17-10 victory over Arizona Western in the El Toro Bowl.
Wait a minute. Nine sacks for a defensive back?
“We put him in the box so we could rush him,” said Lackawanna coach Mark Duda, who is driving to Chicago for the game Sunday — Bears tight end Trevon Wesco and Eagles linebacker Kyzir White also are former members of his program. “At our place, we teach all three levels to rush the passer. We drill it all the time, and Jaquan was super at it. He could come off a No. 2 receiver and beat an offensive tackle one-on-one with no help. He became a huge factor. He won some games for us because of it. That’s how well he did blitzing.
“He’s a long-limbed fellow, and if you watch him when he rushes, he will kind of look like a defensive end. He will throw a pass-rush technique. Often, DBs don’t show any technique. They don’t have a pass rush move in mind, they just try to run around them. But Brisker, he will throw arm-unders, he will use pass rushing technique. He’s a super instinctive guy.”
The Bears are last in the NFL with 16 sacks. Behind Brisker is linebacker Roquan Smith — who was traded to the Baltimore Ravens after Week 8 — with 2½. Defensive linemen Justin Jones and Trevis Gipson and linebacker Jack Sanborn have two each.
Safety Dave Duerson holds the single-season record for sacks by a Bears defensive back with seven in 1986. Safety Todd Bell had 4 ¼ in 1984. Safeties Mike Brown and Mike Green each had three sacks in 2001. They’re the last Bears defensive backs to reach that number.
The Los Angeles Chargers’ Derwin James and Dallas Cowboys’ Donovan Wilson are the only safeties with more sacks than Brisker this season. They have four each.
Despite missing two games, Brisker is fourth on the team with 73 tackles, including four for a loss, and has one interception, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He’s not worried about the concussion, saying, “I’m going to still play aggressive. It doesn’t change the way I’m going to go out there.” Brisker listed getting more interceptions and sacks as goals in the stretch run.
Interceptions can come from being in the right spot at the right moment for a deflection ,but Brisker believes there is a cat-and-mouse game he can play with quarterbacks. This week it is Jalen Hurts, an MVP candidate who has 22 touchdown passes and /only three interceptions.
“Just make the person look open,” Brisker said. “Obviously me covering people tight and not giving any looks, got to make people look open or come from a disguise or bait the quarterback into throwing.
“I wouldn’t say it’s hard to make it look like somebody is open. I mean, you know your speed. You know if you can turn it on or off. It just depends what type of player you are. I feel like I can turn it on at all times.”
Brisker will need to turn it on to get after Hurts if he’s called to blitz. But how in the world did he not get any sacks in three seasons with the Nittany Lions?
“I said something to the coaches,” he replied with wry smile and shrug. “You know, the scheme was about linebackers and D-linemen. They didn’t use DBs like that.”
The Bears are happy to use him in multiple ways.