LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Chicago Bears linebacker Jack Sanborn can list the similarities that he and fellow linebacker T.J. Edwards share as fast as he seems to diagnose opposing run games and attack ball carriers in his second NFL season.
“Growing up in the same area.”
“Same high school coach.”
“Went to Wisconsin and had good careers there.”
“And now we’re both playing a lot.”
That’s playing a lot together in the NFL. Sanborn and Edwards are starting linebackers for the Bears, their hometown team.
That’s something. It’s two dreams come true. It gives you goosebumps if you think about it.
“I just think it’s special,” Sanborn said. “Similar paths, similar careers, going through it all. Both undrafted, everything like that. It’s just trust in ourselves. I think that’s been both of our careers. It’s just trusting ourselves and the confidence that we can play linebacker at a high level. And then it’s just about going out there and doing it.”
The Bears defense is experiencing a turnaround for many reasons — and the play of Sanborn and Edwards must be included. The Bears miss linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. But Sanborn’s playing time has increased in his place. Sanborn and Edwards have played nearly every snap together over the past two games.
“They play well together; they do,” coach Matt Eberflus said. “We miss ’Maine, of course. But in the interim, it’s really cool to see those guys get after it.”
It’s what Bears linebackers do. Edwards and Sanborn would know. They grew up in the Chicago suburbs idolizing them.
“Both of those guys personify our fan base and who we are and who we’ve always wanted to be,” said Luke Mertens, who coached Edwards and Sanborn at different high schools. “They’re just football players.”
T.J. Edwards brings hope and a nose for the ball to the Bears defense
Just think of the names, the legends.
Bill George. Dick Butkus. Mike Singletary. Brian Urlacher. Lance Briggs.
Edwards beat them all to 110 tackles through 10 games.
For a Chicago-area kid, it’s a goosebumps moment again.
“That’s a pretty cool honor,” Sanborn said. “To do something that nobody else has ever done in the position with some great guys that have played here, it’s pretty special. I don’t think it’s anything to just brush over. But at the same time, I don’t think he’s looking super into it.”
He’s not. Not right now. Edwards is thinking more about stopping the Detroit Lions’ run game this week.
“Obviously, it’s cool when you take a step back and look at it,” Edwards said. “But for me, like right now, I just want to win. Stats and all that, I just try to play the game and be around the ball. But obviously it’s cool … and you appreciate it. But shoot, I’m just trying to focus on what’s going on now.”
The Bears have plenty to improve on both sides of the ball. But they are 3-3 in the past six weeks, including 2-2 with undrafted rookie quarterback Tyson Bagent as their starter. With Eberflus calling plays, the defense has kept the Bears in most games, and they’ve won some of them.
According to TruMedia, the Bears rank first in run defense and limiting explosive plays, fourth in yards per play, fifth in total team defensive EPA (expected points added), sixth in total yards, 11th in points per game, 12th in third-down conversion rate and 19th in pass defense over the the past six weeks.
Edwards, the Bears’ first free-agent signing last offseason, has been a tackling machine through all of that improvement by the defense. His 112 total tackles rank third in the NFL. He also has five tackles for loss, two sacks, five QB hits, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
“It’s one thing to have a bunch of tackles and play on not a very good defense, but (Edwards is) playing on a really good defense and getting those tackles, which says a lot,” Eberflus said. “It’s his ability to read, diagnose and then go get things. The whole thing with him is that he’s been really working on his angles in terms of how he attacks the football, and he’s done a great job with that.”
On second-and-5 from the Bears’ 28 in the first quarter in New Orleans, Sanborn quickly cut inside the block of Saints right guard Ryan Ramczyk, an All-Pro in three seasons. Ramczyk barely touched him. Sanborn was too fast. He keyed on running back Alvin Kamara.
Sanborn then met that star with an emphatic thud. He combined with nickelback Kyler Gordon to stop Kamara for a 2-yard loss.
“The year of experience that he had really helps him out a lot,” Eberflus said of Sanborn. “He knows how we read things, how we look at things. And he has really good innate ability to do it to start. He takes the coaching very well; he’s very coachable. And he can see things fast. That’s what you want most out of those guys. That’s what he brings to the table.”
Sanborn’s production has increased with his playing time with Edmunds out. You notice him. He’s playing like he did when he replaced Smith in the Bears defense last season and before an ankle injury ended his rookie season. He’s earned a nickname from Eberflus: The Sandman.
In 10 games, which includes two starts at middle linebacker, Sanborn has 55 total tackles, three tackles for loss, an interception (he dropped a second) and two pass breakups. He’ll still be the Bears’ starter at strongside linebacker when Edmunds returns.
“The one thing I always knew about Jack is that he’s very instinctual,” Edwards said. “I think we’re similar in that way, just with how we were constantly coached at Wisconsin and even here. I think we see the game very similar. And I think that helps play off each other really well. He always wants to be around the ball. And that is definitely something I pride myself in.”
Sanborn went to Wisconsin partly because of Edwards. They connected through Mertens. Edwards was Sanborn’s host on his recruiting trip to Wisconsin. But they barely played together. Edwards’ final season for the Badgers was Sanborn’s first.
“We got about four snaps together, four or five,” Sanborn said.
So not much at all.
It’s different now. In the past two games, Sanborn and Edwards have been on the field together for every defensive snap for the Bears but four.
They’re two tackling machines. They’ve amassed 43 total tackles together in two games.
To Eberflus, they’re the “point of attack” of the Bears defense.
“You should be hitting the ball — every play,” Eberflus said he tells his linebackers. “Every play is yours to make, and that’s your attitude you’ve got to have because you’re sitting in the center of the defense.”
That all starts with how well the linebackers process what they’re seeing and then react to it.
Similar to quarterbacks, not all linebackers have it. They can’t all see it, and you can see that in their play.
Sean Lee had it in Dallas and Shaquille Leonard in Indianapolis. Sanborn, Edwards and Edmunds have that trait, too, Eberflus said.
As a former linebacker and linebackers coach, Eberflus will always view the game through the linebackers’ lens.
“I feel that we can speak the same language,” Eberflus said. “I always talk about how each player has his own camera and the way he sees the game. You as a coach have to figure out how he sees it.”
Sanborn said he and Edwards communicate and play off each other well. Of course, they do. They’ve known each other for years. They also share the same agent, Steve Caric.
“I understand how he plays,” Sanborn said. “I’ve obviously watched him play throughout his entire college career and even in the league when he was doing his thing in Philly. He’s the same type of player, very instinctual, will be around the ball.”
Edwards watched him, too. He looked at Sanborn’s Bears tape last season while he played for the Philadelphia Eagles. They texted often.
“I mean, the dude’s a ballplayer,” Edwards said. “So it’s been fun coming back and obviously playing a lot more together and things like that. We didn’t miss a beat chemistry-wise and communication-wise.”
A couple of weeks ago, Mertens went out to lunch to watch two of his former players play linebacker for the Bears against the Saints.
“Sure enough, both bartenders, one is wearing an Edwards jersey, one is wearing a Sanborn jersey,” Mertens said. “It’s like the coolest thing. Although it’s not surprising to me that the city has just completely embraced who they are and how they play the game.”
Mertens, now the head coach of St. Patrick High in Chicago, first coached Edwards at Lakes High in Lake Villa and later Sanborn at Lake Zurich High.
“From a football perspective,” Mertens said, “I think both T.J. and Jack are a great example that, at the end of the day, it’s about how good of a football player you are.”
It’s not all about having that ideal size or running the fastest times at the NFL Scouting Combine.
“Like, can the dude play football?” Mertens said.
Well, the Bears have two dudes playing football very well.
“They are great examples that metrics can’t totally drive coaching decisions,” Mertens said. “How well can you play? The one thing that you see and anybody who watches the team play, Jack and T.J. just have a knack for finding the football, and that’s something that no 40-yard dash or vertical jump can ever indicate.”
They play hard. They hit. And they tackle.
Like Bears linebackers are supposed to do.
“There is such pride in the toughness, that lore of a Bears defense,” Mertens said, “and I think Jack and T.J. are that, and they’re helping bring that identity back. And I just knew that the city would completely fall in love with these guys.”
(Top photo: Todd Rosenberg / Getty Images)
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