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Roquan Smith, Bears’ defense turn back the clock

With Smith’s 53-yard pick-6 leading the way, the Bears responded to a lackluster performance against the Rams with four takeaways and four sacks — reminiscent of the 2018 defense that dominated the league.

Bears linebacker Roquan Smith (58) motors into the end zone as teammate Tashaun Gipson (38) celebrates to complete a 53-yard interception return of a Joe Burrow pass in the Bears’ 20-17 victory over the Bengals on Sunday at Soldier Field.
Bears linebacker Roquan Smith (58) motors into the end zone as teammate Tashaun Gipson (38) celebrates to complete a 53-yard interception return of a Joe Burrow pass in the Bears’ 20-17 victory over the Bengals on Sunday at Soldier Field.
Nam Y. Huh/AP Photos

Bears linebacker Roquan Smith had one minor regret about his 53-yard interception return for a touchdown that punctuated the Bears’ mostly stellar defensive performance in a 20-17 victory over the Bengals.

“It was pretty sweet — besides giving the ball on my first pick-six to a fan,” Smith said. “In the moment, I wish I would have kept it. But I’m sure I made his year.”

On a day of big defensive plays, it was no surprise that the 24-year-old Smith made the biggest. He had already emerged from the shadow of Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks as the Bears’ best defensive player last season. But for the first time in front of a full house at Soldier Field, he emphatically burnished that reputation in Chicago — and surely beyond — with another game-changing play.

“Best linebacker in the game — and I tell him that,” safety Tashaun Gipson said. “I’ve been saying that since last year. Having a guy like that makes it easy. He’s just a phenomenal player. He can run like a DB. Hit like a linebacker. He can cover like a DB. I don’t have enough good things to say about Roquan. And he’s turned into a leader. A lot of people don’t realize how young he is. I’m just happy he’s on my team.”

Smith’s interception — and impressive 53-yard return through traffic — ignited a defensive flurry against second-year quarterback Joe Burrow that was reminiscent of the good times of 2018, when the defense took the ball away, scored touchdowns and turned on-field celebrations into an art form.

With the Bears leading just 10-3 early in the fourth quarter, the Bears intercepted Burrow on three consecutive passes — a feat that someday could look even more impressive than it was Sunday against a talented young quarterback still finding his way. Burrow had never thrown more than one interception in 11 previous NFL starts.

Smith’s pick-six gave the Bears a 17-3 lead with 10:55 left in the fourth quarter and seemed like it would fuel a blowout. Second-year cornerback Jaylon Johnson intercepted Burrow’s next pass at the Bengals’ 36 — the first interception of his career. After a Pat O’Donnell punt, Bears linebacker Alec Ogletree pressured Burrow into a contested pass that defensive tackle Angelo Blackson intercepted at the Bengals’ 15 and returned to the 9.

The Bengals forced the Bears to settle for Cairo Santos’ 22-yard field goal for a 20-3 lead. And while things became dicey in the end, the Bears’ defense still finished with an impressive performance that reaffirmed a little faith after an error-filled opening game against the Rams.

Besides the three interceptions, safety Eddie Jackson forced a fumble by receiver Tee Higgins that Gipson recovered. The Bears also had four sacks — by outside linebacker Robert Quinn, defensive tackle Bilal Nichols, Mack and Smith.

It was a measure of redemption after a humbling week of criticism and public doubt about which direction this defense is headed.

“We wanted to right our wrongs — I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t in the back of our mind,” Gipson said. “There was a lot of tension in the building, especially on the DBs. We knew we had to play one of our best games. It was a feel-good day for us. Everything that could go right for us went right for us, and that’s just a glory be to God.”

The defense still has to prove it can do more than pick on developing quarterbacks.

“Just got to build off it,” Smith said. And he still has to get himself another souvenir. He’s not going back for the one he gave away.

“Nah. I’ll just keep the jersey, and I’ll keep the memory,” he said. “I’m sure the guy that got the ball, he’ll enjoy [it], so if I can make his day, I’m fine with that.”