At least Montez Sweat has his bearings now.
He doesn’t yet know the names of many people in Halas Hall, perhaps even some Chicago Bears teammates. But he can find his way around the building, which wasn’t the case when he was introduced on Nov. 1, without even being told where the locker room was.
Sweat completed eight practices and played two games with the Bears before Sunday’s NFC North matchup against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. He secretly snuck back to Atlanta last weekend with extended time off after Thursday night’s game and saw his 1 1/2-year-old son, Shiloh.
But it was a whirlwind of a life-changing experience — he signed a four-year, $98 million contract extension four days after the Halloween trade, with the Bears sending a second-round pick to the Washington Commanders.
Now that he’s one of the NFL’s highest-paid edge rushers, is Sweat feeling increasing relief as he settles into his new surroundings, or is he feeling pressure?
“Definitely a little bit of both,” he said. “There is security there and yes, there is real hunger. It’s just more fuel to show that I’m the type of player I’m paid to be.”
Security comes from the fact that Sweat is covered in the event of a serious injury and does not have to worry about benefiting from the three and a half seasons of hard work he has put in on the field. The pressure comes from the fact that to whom much is given, much is expected, especially as a member of a defense that has been unable to harass opposing quarterbacks for two years in a row.
Sweat’s contract averages $24.5 million per season. Only Nick Bosa, TJ Watt, Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett have a higher APY. Of the top 15 edge rushers in APY, Sweat and the Green Bay Packers’ Rashan Gary are the only ones who haven’t recorded double-digit sacks for at least one season. Sweat had nine in 2020. Gary, who signed a four-year, $96 million contract extension last month, had 9 1/2 in 2021.
“The relief part is cool,” Sweat said. “Pressure? All those guys (signaling to teammates in the locker room), we all have a job to do on Sundays. I expect everyone to try to do their job as well as I can, just like I did. Pressure is a privilege .”
It’s not that Sweat doesn’t know the feeling. He felt it in Washington when he was drafted in the first round in 2019, one of four first-round draft picks on the Commanders’ defensive line over a four-year span. And pressure comes in all forms. Undrafted players don’t have a signing bonus to play for – but they are under constant scrutiny to maintain a spot on the roster. Sweat’s point is that he’s not like everyone else on the roster in this regard.
Although it would be foolish to make a judgment on the trade after just two games, the early results have been positive. In the 16:13 win against the Carolina Panthers, Sweat had five pressures and three quarterback hits on Bryce Young.
That kind of production should translate into sacks — Sweat had 6 1/2 for the Commanders before the trade — and create opportunities for defensive teammates. Ultimately, this led general manager Ryan Poles to make the trade and double his money by paying Sweat. He is considered a multiplier, the kind of elite player who raises the level of play of those around him.
Defensive tackle Justin Jones had arguably his best game of the season against the Panthers with three solo tackles, a sack and three QB hits. Rookies Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens made an impact. Dexter had a hit and Pickens drew a holding penalty. It was perhaps the best game of the season for rotation rusher Rasheem Green, and Yannick Ngakoue picked up his third sack of the season and first since Week 5.
But to be clear, there’s more work to be done to get this defensive line to where the Bears need it from a personnel standpoint, and Sweat is the first big building block as the team waits to see how younger players develop .
The Bears have a challenge this week – the Lions are doing a good job protecting quarterback Jared Goff. He has a sack percentage of 4.4%, fifth-best in the league, and Sweat will likely face third-year right tackle Penei Sewell, one of the best in the NFL, for most of the game.
Coach Matt Eberflus drew a parallel to the situation in Indianapolis when he was defensive coordinator and the Colts traded a first-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, a disruptive interior player.
“Very similar,” said Eberflus. “This is a quality player, an All-Pro player and a guy who can impact the quarterback. You can really see the effect. The Tez factor, which I recently called, or the Tez effect. You can see the rushers working at quarterback. We had a lot of good pressure last week, a lot of good hits on the quarterback and a few sacks. This must continue. It really helped our reporting. You can see that. A lot of the incomplete passes are definitely due to this pressure. We have to continue this.”
Sweat said when he moved to defensive end — he was recruited as a tight end out of high school — he watched a video of former Bears edge rusher Julius Peppers.
“Just the way he used his length to get out,” Sweat said. “The way he saves tackles and stuff. It had an engine.”
Sweat also tried to recreate some of the moves that Khalil Mack, another former Bear, perfected.
“I like his long arm,” he said. “The way he uses it and pushes his body. All these people have similar things and they all have engines.”
Pass rushers with elite length — Sweat has an 84 3/4-inch wingspan — use a straight arm motion to prevent the offensive lineman from getting his hands in his chest. It provides separation – just like long arms give a boxer an advantage – and allows the edge rusher to gain leverage on so-called “speed-to-power rushes.”
Sweat was effective with his long-arm moves against Panthers right tackle Taylor Moton and the New Orleans Saints’ Ryan Ramczyk the week before. The hope at Halas Hall is that Sweat is just starting to transform the defensive front with the sacks to come.
“A lot of people are really focused on sacks,” Sweat said. “And it’s a great tool to be evaluated, but there are a lot of other ways to impact the game other than just getting a sack, whether it’s a hit, a pressure or even stout in the run game.” All of those things can help you a lot.”