The Bears could be without two of their best defensive players Sunday against the Texans. At best, linebacker Roquan Smith and cornerback Jaylon Johnson will be playing through significant injuries that kept them out of practice.
The team listed both as questionable on the final injury report of the week. The NFL requires a prompt update to their status if it changes between now and kickoff.
Smith, who played every snap over the Bears’ first two games, was out of practice all week with a hip injury that he apparently suffered in the Week 2 loss to the Packers.
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams said this week he anticipated Smith would be available, and coach Matt Eberflus tried to maintain some uncertainty Friday to keep the Texans unsure, saying the “questionable” designation meant there was at least a 51% chance he’d play.
“He’s working towards the game, and we’re hopeful that he’ll be there,” Eberflus added.
Any injury situation with Smith carries the extra element of him being in the final season of his contract, but Eberflus didn’t think that would factor into a decision about whether he’ll play.
“Roquan’s a pro, and when he’s ready to play, he’s gonna play,” he said. “And he’s always been that way.”
Smith wasn’t spectacular in either of the first two games but is still the Bears’ leading tackler with 20. He has led the team in tackles every season since his debut in 2018.
That production would be missed. It’s always going to be a big drop on the depth chart from a player of Smith’s caliber — he was second-team All-Pro each of the last two seasons — but it’s even worse in this case. Smith’s backup, Matt Adams, was ruled out with a hamstring injury that happened in practice Wednesday. The Bears’ next options are undrafted rookies Jack Sanborn and Sterling Weatherford.
Sanborn, who hails from suburban Lake Zurich and was an All-Big Ten selection at Wisconsin last season, emerged as a fan favorite in the preseason after an interception, a fumble recovery and a tackle for loss in the opener. He was active for the first two regular-season games but played only on defense.
“I feel confident in myself — that’s just from everything I’ve gone through so far, all of training camp and in practice and things like that,” Sanborn said. “That’s where confidence has got to grow.”
That’s the entirety of the Bears’ linebacker room, so they’ll probably need to call up at least one player from the practice squad Saturday.
Johnson, meanwhile, might be even tougher to replace. He has played all but one snap and is far and away the Bears’ best player in coverage. He appeared to hurt his quadriceps in practice Thursday and sat out Friday.
The disparity between him and the other cornerbacks is illustrated by the fact he didn’t have a single pass thrown his way in the first two games. Quarterbacks have instead been content to test rookie Kyler Gordon in the slot and Kindle Vildor on the outside.
Gordon was the 39th pick in the draft this spring, and the Bears have sky-high expectations for his career, but it might take time. In 20 targets, he has allowed 15 completions for 200 yards and a touchdown, according to Pro Football Reference.
Vildor is in his third season but has yet to prove he’s an NFL-caliber starter. The Bears benched him in Week 11 last season.
On the bench, the Bears have Jaylon Jones and Josh Blackwell, both undrafted rookies who have played only on special teams, and Lamar Jackson, who hasn’t played on defense since 2020.
The Texans went 4-13 last season and have one of the worst offenses in the NFL, so that helps, but the Bears are in no position to assume they can get by any opponent at less than full strength.