Nick Kwiatkoski, Bears Defense Adjust on the Fly
The Bears would like to think they can duplicate their signature defensive effort of 2018 on Sunday night against the Los Angeles Rams, even if the circumstances have changed greatly.
Instead of both teams leading divisions like last year, they're on the outside looking in at the playoff picture, and both are plagued by critical injuries. The Rams are without starting center Brian Allen, receiver Brandin Cooks and tackle Rob Havenstein due to injuries while the Bears are now without Danny Trevathan after already losing Akiem Hicks.
"I mean, it's huge," Pagano said of losing Trevathan to an elbow dislocation. "It's like you never want to lose anybody. It's like you lose (Akiem Hicks) earlier in the season. Now Danny goes out with the same injury.
"Just his presence, his poise, his leadership. He’s out in front of the huddle. He makes all the calls. He’s got the helmet communication. All that stuff, besides being the player that he is and the calming force that he is. You just don't replace guys like that."
Then again, if Trevathan has to be replaced against the Rams there aren't many players better equipped to do it than Nick Kwiatkoski.
"For me it's business as usual," Kwiatkoski said. "I'm preparing like I'm going to play, just because I've been in that situation before where it's better just to have that mindset going in."
The Sunday night game this week against the Rams marks the 16th time they've called on Kwiatkoski to start in his four seasons. He was ready in Week 3 in 2016 as a rookie when he had to start for Trevathan against the Dallas Cowboys in a 31-17 loss.
"I mean my first game when I was a rookie I got out there, I didn't know what to expect," Kwiatkoski said. "I mean, my eyes were everywhere, wasn't prepared."
Later in that season he had to replace Jerrell Freeman. Usually Kwiatkoski has been up to the challenge.
"It's preparation," Pagano said. "Because I said it a number of times—we ask them all to come in and prepare like starters and Kwit's a guy that does that. He's kind of the poster child for that guy.
"Does a great job in his role on special teams and those guys get very few reps during the week, from a defensive perspective. So from a film perspective, the walk-throughs, all those type of things, he does a phenomenal job."
Trevathan's nine-tackle effort with a sack and interception against the Lions earned him Pro Football Focus' highest linebacker grade in league for Week 10, a 92.4 rating. PFF has him at 88.2 for the year, including a strong effort when he started against the Vikings for Roquan Smith.
The grades and stats can't account for something Trevathan brought which Kwiatkoski doubts he can replace.
"I mean with Danny being out he kind of brings something on the field, off the field leadership-wise that it's hard to match," Kwiatkoski said. "So he's a lead-by-example guy. He's vocal. We're different.
"So I mean just for me to just go in I try to be a lead-by-example type guy, as well. It's hard to match what Danny and also what Akiem Hicks brings but (I'm) going in there and doing the right things on the field."
Cornerback Prince Amukamara pointed out Trevathan can always provide sideline leadership.
"Danny's leadership, it's always been great," Amukamara said. "He's the guy when things aren't going well he always rounds us up and makes sure that we're focused and he encourages us. So yeah, that's going to be tough, but I know his presence is still going to be there and he's still going to be the same leader as if he'd been playing."
Kwiatkowski might be auditioning now for a job elsewhere next year since he's an unrestricted free agent after the season, or he could be auditioning for Trevathan's job.
If Trevathan misses the remainder of the season he'll have 45 starts of a possible 64 in his four-year Bears career, and he also is an unrestricted free agent. The team would have to consider the health record before bringing him back even if he is the field general.
Kwiatkoski couldn't be making a tougher start this week considering his skill set. He's strong as a downhill inside linebacker, stuffing the run but not especially effective in pass coverage.
The Rams are the type of offense liable to attack anywhere and use every edge.
"Their offense is made to take shots down the field," Amukamara said. "(Sean) McVay is a mastermind coordinator and coach so he always has some great stuff drawn up."
Pagano has tried to match wits against McVay's offense before, with the Colts. It didn't come out like the Bears' effort under Vic Fangio last year when they won 15-6 at Soldier Field.
"I've gone against him and had my tail kicked by him in 2017," Pagano said. "We opened the season out there and he's a great coach. He's got a bunch of great assistants and he's got great players.
"It's gonna be a huge challenge for us. He's going to do his due diligence, so they'll be prepared for anything and everything and we gotta do the same thing."
It sounds exactly like the type of situation Kwiatkoski has always flourished in when summoned.