By Robert Zeglinski
The scene is an early second down play in an exhibition game between the Bears and Denver Broncos. The Bears’ first-team offense has scored it’s first touchdown of the preseason, and the defense needs a play-making response. All comers welcome.
As soon as Broncos quarterback Case Keenum receives the snap, Roy Robertson-Harris charges off the ball with a purpose, timing his pass rush get-off perfectly. No man who weighs 294 pounds should move like this. Ronald Leary, one of the NFL’s better guards, is ironically caught off guard (no pun intended). With Leary flat-footed, he’s basically a dummy for Robertson-Harris to toy with as he pleases. Using excellent hand placement, the 25-year-old defensive end decides to use Leary’s backward momentum against him, which takes Robertson-Harris straight to Keenum. A sack and a one-yard loss: exactly what the Bears defense ordered.
If that sack sounds incredibly intricate to execute, that’s because it was. One would be remiss if they didn’t think it took inconceivable time and effort to finish it given everything Robertson-Harris had to do in leverage, speed, and closing ability. In reality, it took less than five seconds for Robertson-Harris to showcase how advanced he’s become as a player as he brought Keenum to the ground.
And this textbook sack from the rising star is merely one example of his progress: Robertson-Harris leads the 2018 NFL preseason in sacks with 3.5. That’s not a number you see from men of his sizable stature attain that quickly, regardless of where the calendar is.
It’s Year 3 of the Roy Robertson-Harris era in Chicago. Embroiled, but sitting comfortably in a heated defensive end competition up front for Chicago, the start of a positive journey could not be going any more swimmingly.
When the Bears signed Robertson-Harris as an undrafted free agent out of UTEP two years ago, they had originally planned for him to be one of their outside linebacking projects. An undisclosed illness that Robertson-Harris battled throughout Chicago’s 2016 training camp sidetracked these plans as the Bears effectively medical redshirted his rookie season.
That gave them the necessary time to have Robertson-Harris work on a transition to defensive end. With extra time in development, the mission for the young defensive lineman was to gain almost 40 pounds to last at the point of attack, and to work on the finer details of the position.
You can imagine the strength and size being the easier part.
“The putting on the weight and getting stronger, that’s all natural,” Robertson-Harris told me. “You just do it.”
Predictably, understanding what the Bears asked of Robertson-Harris in a new role was always going to be more challenging. Though, curiously, perhaps not as difficult as conceivably thought.
“Getting my football IQ up has been most important in making the position transition,” said Robertson-Harris. “Being able to play where I am, it’s not hard as outside linebacker as I thought it would be.”
Taken a little aback by this revelation, I wondered what Robertson-Harris meant by a lack of difficulty going into Year 2 of this defensive end flip. If this position move has been really that simple for him, and if he’s already come well into his own. As it turns out, due to previous valued experience: it has been that simple, and he has come into his own.
“I’ve got my hand in the ground and I’m in the box,” Robertson-Harris clarified as to why playing five-technique in the NFL is better. The former UTEP standout played both outside linebacker and defensive end in college, and excelled in both areas. So it’s not as if making a switch was throwing him into the fire. If anything, asking Robertson-Harris to play outside linebacker could’ve been reasonably seen as a tougher initial ask.
“I played defensive end in college, just in a different scheme,” mused Robertson-Harris. “I pretty much feel like a natural with where I am now.”
If it’s not making a vaunted positional switch, what is it exactly that had to be fine-tuned for Robertson-Harris to find a niche with the Bears in the manner he has?
Why, according to the defensive end, it’s nothing other than the small leaps in individual technique as with everyone. “It’s hand speed and working on my stab. It’s power and establishing a base. Things like that,” Robertson-Harris said very matter-of-factly.
Even more crucially, it’s not developing a sense of complacency. It’s being locked in every play, regardless of what’s happened before. Every play to Robertson-Harris is but one battle to win that you have to stack together over the course of a game; “I’ve made sure that I’m consistently making plays and not being complacent.”
“Make a play, move on from it,” continued Robertson-Harris. “Make a play, move on from it.”
A lack of complacency and a need for consistency: the most crucial aspects of NFL football that Robertson-Harris understands fully well. So much so that he continually reiterates their importance to me.
“Consistency is key, like I said before. Being consistent, all of it,” Robertson-Harris repeated. “Being able to stay on the field as long as I can, and making a difference when I’m on it.”
If Robertson-Harris is keyed on being a difference maker for this Bears team, he certainly has the proper mentality.
Amidst Robertson-Harris’ newfound prowess, an elephant in the room is lurking until further notice this preseason: he still has to fight for a starting job. A job opposite arguable All-Pro talent Akiem Hicks. A job, that despite his stellar summer efforts so far, Robertson-Harris hasn’t definitively won yet. A job where one of his best friends on the Bears’ roster in Jonathan Bullard – both began their pro football careers together – stands in his way.
That’s a hefty plate of the future to handle at once, and Robertson-Harris has nailed down an effective method for processing it: he doesn’t think about it. He operates on the cliche “control what you can control”. Which if you know one thing about cliches, it’s that they’re cliches for a reason. They’re overused, but they’re true.
“I’m not thinking about the competition,” said a focused Robertson-Harris. “Coaches are gonna pick one of us and the media will pick me or ‘Bull’.”
In a situation where his earning potential and NFL fate hangs in the balance, it’s interesting how Robertson-Harris defers to “Bull” in Bullard. That might be the best indicator of a player maturing, being only concerned with how his efforts can put him on a platform to succeed. There’s no scoreboard watching here.
“He’s a great player. He’s got a great get-off. I’ve seen him play in college, and I know what he can do,” Robertson-Harris noted of Bullard. “But I’m not actively thinking about this competition.”
Indeed, the more you let situations that aren’t entirely in your control outside of your play get into your head, the less successful you’ll be. This is the best tunnel vision Robertson-Harris has ever deployed.
“I’m just trying to better myself as a player, and the coaches will pick who’s starting when it comes to Week 1.”
Part of taking an evolutionary step as a successful 3-4 defensive lineman is using all the information at your disposal. One would be remiss if they didn’t study where the great ones shine and where they don’t. There are always ideal models to take pieces from and add to your mental and physical repertoire.
That fact isn’t lost on Robertson-Harris, who truly appreciates some elite defensive linemen. Such as a certain Jacksonville Jaguar All-Pro and 2017 Defensive Player of the Candidate.
“I’ve watched a lot of Calais Campbell, who is a bigger dude,” said Robertson-Harris of his favorite off-season film studies, being a “bigger dude” himself. “I think he’s 6-foot-8 (he is). But he’s not fat, he’s just really tall, and I watch a lot of his film.”
If there was one player for Robertson-Harris to model himself off of, it’s the 6-foot-8, 300 pound Campbell who is comparable to the Bears’ defensive end at 6-foot-7, 294 pounds. If there was one player to eventually become down the line for Robertson-Harris, it’s Campbell, who is one of the most advanced and technically sound pass rushers in football. The 31-year-old Jaguar star uses his size more optimally than anyone, so it’s no wonder why Robertson-Harris would look up to him.
Luckily, Robertson-Harris has also has another man he can watch directly every day at Halas Hall. The player he’s tasked with complementing well, and who he can take pieces from bit by bit.
“Akiem (Hicks) goes out there and he’s just a force on the field. It’s hard to stop him,” said Robertson-Harris of his Bears star teammate. “There’s a lot to learn from what he does.”
Robertson-Harris’ self-scouting report – a report that might be a little too generous towards his athleticism – shows he knows he can be a similar force with the necessary work. Baby steps, baby steps.
“I bring length, I bring speed, I’m still pretty good at moving,” said Robertson-Harris, evaluating himself confidently. “Even though I’m bigger, I’m still able to move around like I used to. Obviously not as much, but for being almost 300 pounds, I can still run really well.”
“I was on kickoff last year … so what does that tell you?” R.
Robert is an editor, writer and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.