The reminders are everywhere: On the walls of his Halas Hall meeting room, on the practice fields, on the film of his past two playoff losses.
Not that Bears new ILB coach Mark DeLeone, of all people, needed reminding of the importance of LB play to his new organization, to the NFL and specifically to today’s game.
Still, the pictures of Chicago’s holy trinity — Butkus, Urlacher and Singletary — adorn the Bears ILB room. It’s a Matt Nagy touch, his old pal and new assistant admits.
“I walk into my meeting room and I see those three guys — it’s an unbelievable feeling,” DeLeone said of the art of the three franchise legends and Pro Football Hall of Famers. “I can’t tell you how blessed I feel and how lucky I am to be a part of this organization.”
On the practice field is where DeLeone works with the Bears’ most valuable asset on defense not named Khalil Mack. In Roquan Smith, the eighth overall selection in last year’s draft, DeLeone sees Mack-like potential.
“I think he has all the tools, all the skill set and the personality traits to be elite,” DeLeone said. “One of the premier players at his position in the game.”
On the film of the Chiefs’ AFC title game defeat last season and their wild-card round loss two years ago is where DeLeone would now likely see what he was missing then. He coached in Kansas City from 2013-18, spending his first five seasons with Nagy (2013-14 as defensive quality control coach; 2015-17 as assistant linebackers; last season as LB coach) before reuniting this year in Chicago.
The Chiefs' ILBs, Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland led Football Outsiders’ 26th-rated ‘D’ last season — a big improvement over 2017, we’ll add — and were bludgeoned 48 times for 176 yards and four rushing touchdowns in January. It came after a regular season in which they permitted among the most catches, yards and receiving touchdowns to running backs.
Two seasons ago, Derrick Henry ran roughshod over Ragland and Derrick Johnson in the playoffs as the Chiefs squandered an 18-point second-half advantage.
Hitchens and Ragland are hardly stiffs. Hitchens was promised more than $25 million last offseason to prevent the type of performance that unfolded in Foxboro. Ragland, the former 'Bama All American and second-rounder with the Buffalo Bills, was acquired via trade two offseasons ago to be the potential heir to an aging Johnson.
However, there might not be a better tandem in the NFL this season than Smith and Trevathan, the fast, fierce and physical leading tacklers for the best defense in football.
“I feel like in "Ro" and Danny, they are elite [in coverage]. Danny throughout his career has been an elite cover linebacker, and I think "Ro" can be,” DeLeone said. “I think our whole room — we have really, really good athleticism and speed at the position, and in today’s NFL you have to have that.”
The specific question was about the pair’s cover skills, as it’s even clearer what they do against the run: lead a group whose average of 80 yards surrendered per game last season was the lowest in the league. So if it sounds like the old adage shaping up here, if it isn't broken, don't fix it, DeLeone concurs.
“Obviously they already have such a great locker room, such a great culture,” DeLeone said. “We’re not trying to change it; we’re trying to add."
That means continuing to work with Smith on the subtleties of coverage after he tallied both of his interceptions and half of his six passes defensed over the final five games of his rookie season. It means managing the reps of the "still really, really dynamic" Trevathan so he stacks healthy campaigns after starting 16 regular-season games for the first time as a Bear and second time in his first seven years.
The additions can stem from relaying information and techniques slightly different than Vic Fangio and Glenn Pires did. Their successors aren’t too proud to try different methods. New DC Chuck Pagano said they're “throwing a lot of mud at the wall to see what sticks.”
It’s a good thing he already knows what makes Smith tick.
“He’d be a great poker player because you can never read what’s going on inside his head and doesn’t show a lot of emotion,” Pagano explained of Smith, after calling him one of the sharpest second-year players he’s worked with. “He’s absorbing everything. The guy doesn’t make mistakes. Out on the football field he does a lot of things you can’t coach.”
“He does a great job from an accountability standpoint, a leadership standpoint, where he’s gonna hold himself accountable. But then in the right way, he can bring people along with him and hold his teammates accountable.”
As DeLeone correctly summed up: “It’s all about the players. My whole goal is to help the players play as fast and as hard as they can.”
Do we need to remind DeLeone that in Smith and Trevathan, he inherited two of the faster, harder-hitting linebackers in football?
“I couldn’t be any happier to coach them,” he said.