An argument can be made that the most impressive throw by a Chicago Bears player Sunday came with 1 minute, 5 seconds remaining, a 40-yard bomb launched near Soldier Field’s south end zone.
The throw came from a linebacker — why not? — during a stoppage of play immediately after the game’s biggest moment.
With his adrenaline pumping after a clutch interception, Roquan Smith wound up and heaved the football deep into the seats, aware that his Bears were moments away from defeating the Houston Texans 23-20 on a walk-off, chip-shot field goal.
“I tried to stop him,” safety Eddie Jackson said. “That’s a game-winning pick. You’ve got to keep that!”
Smith, though, didn’t need the football as much as he needed an emotional release. So he let it fly.
“To all my supporters,” he said with a big smile. “I threw that to all of them. And (I was) saying ‘F you’ to all that don’t.”
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Yes, Chicago, your majorly flawed but still feisty Bears are 2-1, outlasting the winless Texans in such a Bears-like way, with Smith and the defense nudging the struggling offense to the side and offering a “We’ve got this” reprieve in the fourth quarter.
The Bears’ game-winning “drive”: four plays, zero yards.
It was basically a three-snap sideways shuffle to set up Cairo Santos’ game-winning 30-yard kick as time expired. That came thanks to Smith’s interception of Davis Mills and an 18-yard return.
And Smith’s third-down pick came in part because defensive tackle Angelo Blackson did his job up front, getting his right hand on Mills’ pass to Rex Burkhead and allowing Smith to snatch the fluttering ball at the Texans 30.
“If you can’t get to the quarterback, get your hands up,” Blackson said. “It was an opportune time. Just perfect, man.”
Added Smith: “If I had had a little more juice in me, I could have cribbed it. But I was just thankful to be able to get it and then let the fans enjoy the ball.”
We could talk until we’re blue in the face about how little meaning Sunday’s victory carries for the Bears’ big-picture aspirations. This was an ordinary home win over a bottom-tier opponent and loaded with troubling sloppiness, particularly as it relates to the feeble passing attack and ongoing struggles of second-year quarterback Justin Fields.
Fields threw two more interceptions and, for the third consecutive game, failed to reach 10 completions or 125 passing yards.
“I played like trash,” Fields said. “I played terrible.”
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But on defense the Bears are convinced they are making valuable strides and establishing an identity as a unit capable of seizing big moments and winning games.
Smith’s pick was the Bears’ second takeaway, the other coming in the first half when Jackson snagged a Mills pass to Brandin Cooks in the end zone. That throw was deflected by cornerback Kindle Vildor and corralled by Jackson near the end line.
“It’s just flying around,” Jackson said. “That’s what happens. When you hustle and play with intensity, good things start to happen.”
Just as Smith’s interception set up the Bears for free points, Jackson’s thwarted a prime Texans scoring opportunity on a drive that started inside Bears territory after Fields’ first interception.
Equally significant, after Fields threw his second pick on the first play of the fourth quarter to set up the Texans inside the Bears 40 in a tie game, the defense quickly extinguished that threat.
Defensive tackle Justin Jones came up with an 8-yard sack of Mills on second down. Linebacker Nick Morrow followed by burying Pharaoh Brown for a loss of 5 on a tight end screen on the next snap.
The Texans punted.
“That was a huge moment,” Smith said. “We preach about that, about being able to bow our necks and earn our checks.”
Added Jones: “We’re jelling together right now, becoming one close-knit unit. We’re well on our way to playing in midseason form.”
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Smith’s play was nothing short of energizing. After missing practice the entire week with a hip injury, he recorded a game-high 16 tackles, including two for a loss.
“I was focused all week on giving myself a shot to play in this game,” he said. “I still wasn’t all the way there. But, hey, halfway (there) is better than no way.”
Hard to argue.
After Smith’s play in a 27-10 Week 2 loss to the Green Bay Packers was justifiably scrutinized — even he acknowledged it was subpar — the veteran linebacker arose Sunday and spearheaded a strong defensive effort.
Late in the third quarter, on third-and-1 from the Bears 2, Smith shot into the Texans backfield to bury running back Dameon Pierce for a 3-yard loss. That was a pivotal stop. The Texans settled for a tying field goal instead of surging ahead.
Naturally, as Smith works toward earning his next contract and regroups after his tension-filled training camp “hold-in,” all of his contributions this season will be assessed in part with an eye on how they might affect his future and his bid to be paid as one of the league’s best defenders.
Sunday’s game-winning interception was the kind of game-changing contribution many want to see more consistently as Smith tries to establish himself as an elite linebacker.
“I just try to play the best ball that I can play,” Smith said. “That’s my goal each and every week. And if I make big plays, I make them. But I’m not going out there wishing for things. I play my game and if good things happen, they happen.”
More importantly, as the Bears continue working through a patience-testing troubleshooting process to awaken their passing offense, they are finding other ways to succeed and leaning on areas of strength. On Sunday, that meant a reliance on a bruising running attack led by Khalil Herbert, who stepped up in a big way after David Montgomery left the game with a right knee/ankle injury.
Herbert turned 20 carries into 157 yards and two touchdowns. Overall, the Bears churned out 281 rushing yards, their highest single-game total since 1984.
Then late in the game, the Bears again turned to their defense, relying on the unit’s best player to come through in a major way. Smith responded with that pick and his celebratory bomb into the seats.
“That was pretty sweet,” he said. “I wish I could have thrown it out of the stadium.”
It was an impressive toss nonetheless — and a fitting punctuation on the afternoon.