GREEN BAY, Wis. — On the list of dazzling debuts in the Bears' 24-23 loss to the Packers on Sunday night, top pick Roquan Smith's might not be higher than third or fourth.
And Smith, Chicago's "other" prized new linebacker, recorded a sack on his first NFL snap.
It's just that it came on the 60th play from scrimmage, after rookie head coach Matt Nagy's play-calling clinic on the Bears' opening drive and Khalil Mack's utter domination on, well, most of the Packers possessions prior to their second-half surge.
Smith, the eighth overall pick, whose 29-day holdout spanned the entire preseason and delayed the start of what the Bears expect to their next great middle linebacker's career, made up for lost time — from his holdout and his first NFL game.
After entering the game with over 1 minute remaining before halftime, following an injury to starter Danny Trevathan, Smith blitzed Packers backup QB Brett Hundley. With Green Bay's center and left guard attempting to double team Akiem Hicks, Smith had a clear path to the passer, obstructed only by 6-foot-0, 216-pound Packers RB Ty Montgomery.
Advantage, Smith, who barreled over Montgomery with sudden impact — one of the first words Bears GM Ryan Pace used to describe his first-rounder in April — and widened his approach to Hundley around the right edge for the sack, the Bears' fourth of the evening. It was like Smith was back in Athens, Ga., where he tallied 6.5 sacks in his final season as the Bulldogs' do-it-all defender.
"He picked up a little scavenger sack today," Trevathan said. "You like to see that. It’s going to add momentum into this season. You want to see that from the young bucks out here.
"A scavenger sack is when you’re picking up sloppy seconds. But you’re still doing your job; you’re hustling to the ball. So you still count. I think Khalil or someone missed out there. You want to see him hustling to the ball. That’s what college players are known for — you never want to let that go. You want to hustle to the ball. You want to make plays.
Hicks, DE Roy Robertson-Harris and OLB Khalil Mack, whose first half of his Bears debut doubled as one of the great singular efforts by a defender over 30 minutes in recent NFL history, all got in on the pressure party. Robertson-Harris, Chicago's most consistent havoc-wreaker during the preseason, actually injured Packers QB Aaron Rodgers' left knee on his sack, sending Rodgers off the sideline to the locker room on a cart before he returned to begin the second half.
Also returning to begin the second half was Trevathan, relegating Smith mostly back to the sideline after only four first-half defensive snaps. But it's obviously only a matter of time before Smith becomes the Bears' every-down player, one who they believe can retreat with the same effectiveness as he attacks. Perhaps soon as interim starter Nick Kwiatkoski struggles in coverage, as he did Sunday in allowing first-down catches to Packers TEs Jimmy Graham and Lance Kendricks.
The Bears, though, have preached a cautious approach all along with Smith, who dealt with hamstring tightness and was a limited practice participant in his first full week following the holdout. He'll eventually get the helmet with the green dot making him the quarterback of the defense.
The Bears did put Smith back on the field in the fourth quarter Sunday night with the Packers in the process of turning a 20-0 deficit into a three-point game. With the defense spending a ton of time on the field, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio likely was opting for Smith's fresh legs, even if his physical conditioning might have contributed initially to his delayed entrance. It was at least a small show of faith to opt for the rookie over an experienced vet in Kwiatkoski with Rodgers authoring a brilliant comeback.
Smith, the reigning Butkus award winner and first inside linebacker selected in the 2018 draft, is considered the NFL's modern-day linebacker prototype. He made the most meaningful contributions from Chicago's seven-man draft class. Fellow former first-rounder Leonard Floyd, playing with a padded club on his fractured right hand, was fairly quiet with two sacks, including one tackle for loss.
But along with Smith, Trevathan and Khalil Mack, he could give the Bears the NFL's premier LB unit. That much was apparent essentially the second he and Mack stepped in between the white lines for the first time in the navy and orange.