Rookie CB Josh Blackwell making a name for himself

On a Bears defense that has plummeted in the second half of the season, Blackwell is one of a few bright spots — with starters Jaylon Johnson, Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker — that will have the secondary heading into 2023 with the arrow pointing up.

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Bears cornerback Josh Blackwell (39, breaking up a pass for Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb on Dec. 4) had four tackles in 40 snaps against the Bills on Saturday.

Bears cornerback Josh Blackwell (39, breaking up a pass for Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb on Dec. 4) had four tackles in 40 snaps against the Bills on Saturday.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Josh Blackwell is an undrafted free agent from Duke who was cut by the Eagles before signing with the Bears and has spent much of his rookie season buried on special teams and cloaked in anonymity. So there was little chance Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs even knew who Blackwell was Saturday when they matched up at Soldier Field.

“Not a shot he knows who I am,” Blackwell said.

Diggs and his fellow Bills receivers probably still don’t know who Blackwell is after their 35-13 victory. But Bears fans are among those taking notice of the unheralded cornerback who might be more than just another depth guy with a chip on his shoulder.

Aided by conditions that limited both teams’ passing games, Blackwell showed a knack for playing the slot against the Bills. When he batted a downfield pass intended for wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie in the fourth quarter, he wasn’t credited with a pass breakup. But there’s a lot Blackwell has done that doesn’t show up in the box score.

And even in a 22-point loss in which the defense allowed 35 points and 426 yards, Blackwell showed growth that might eventually pay off.

“When you play guys like Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, it’s always fun to have that challenge,” the 6-foot, 175-pound Blackwell said. “You play a game like this, and you realize, ‘You know what? I actually do kind of belong. I can play with anybody.’ That’s one of the best offenses in the league. So you learn that you’re more than capable to be in this league.”

Blackwell has made a good first impression on special teams — a team-high 10 tackles and a forced fumble and fumble recovery in punt coverage against the Giants in Week 4. When starters Kyler Gordon and Kindle Vildor were out against the Packers in Week 13, Blackwell started at nickel and didn’t blink against Aaron Rodgers. He played only one game at nickel in 37 (28 starts) at Duke.

“I’m finally getting some opportunities to show that I can play,” Blackwell said. “I’m just playing the roles they give me and whatever I can do, I’m going to do it at my best. I’m pleased. I obviously wish we [won] the game, but I think I’m making a good case for myself.”

Blackwell isn’t the only one in the Bears’ secondary doing that. Though the defense has plummeted overall since linebacker Roquan Smith and defensive end Robert Quinn were traded at midseason — dropping from a tie for seventh in scoring to 30th — the secondary includes some foundation pieces that seem like a bigger part of the -solution than the problem.

Cornerback Jaylon Johnson was playing at a Pro Bowl level before going on injured reserve with a broken finger. Gordon has had the typical ups and downs for a rookie cornerback but has interceptions in his last two games. Rookie safety Jaquan Brisker has been productive all season and had his fourth sack against Buffalo.

Undrafted rookie cornerback Jaylon Jones has made progress in 11 games on defense and had two pass breakups Saturday.

Rookie safety Elijah Hicks, a seventh-round draft pick, was beaten for a touchdown against the Packers but also has made plays, including a fumble recovery against the Bills.

The secondary’s success, while relatively modest in most instances, has notably come despite a virtually nonexistent pass rush. When backups were surprisingly effective last season against the Vikings — with Vildor, Thomas Graham Jr., Deon Bush, Teez Tabor and Marqui Christian helping hold Kirk Cousins to 83 passing yards — the Bears had Akiem Hicks (two sacks), Quinn (two sacks) and Smith applying pressure. This group hasn’t had that luxury.

There’s still a lot to prove and a long, long way to go. But on a defense with a lot of holes to fill, the secondary will go into 2023 with the arrow pointing up.

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