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Can Montez Sweat play even better? Hall of Fame DE explains untapped potential in his game originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Montez Sweat was everything the Bears hoped he would be when they traded for him at last year’s deadline. He instantly raised the profile of the pass rush and ended up leading the team with six sacks, despite playing in only nine games.

Hall of Fame defensive end Dwight Freeney thinks Sweat can be even better, though.

Freeney joined the Under Center podcast on Monday and explained the untapped potential that he sees in Sweat. Right now, Sweat is known as a powerful rusher with blazing speed. The blend of speed and power around the outside is tough for offensive linemen to handle. But Freeney believes if Sweat can develop a devastating inside move to complement his outside speed, then he can become recognized as one of the top pass rushers in the game.

“They’re already scared to death of the speed and his athleticism,” Freeney said. “I think he can do whatever he wants from that perspective. But once he really develops a great counter off of his outside speed, speed to power, he’s going to be a handful. He obviously already was (a handful), but there’s levels, there’s definitely levels to how good or great you can be at the pass rush or the defensive end position.

“If you just want to be a good player then you’ll have your one move and you’ll get your 10 sacks maybe, if protection, they decide not to pay attention to you as much. But when you start to be recognized as one of those guys, you’re going to have to develop a counter move.”

The way Freeney sees it, pass rushers need multiple options like star pitches need offspeed pitches. If a pitcher can only throw fastballs, batters who are good enough to catch up can anticipate the pitch for an easy hit. But pitchers can fully dominate when they’re able to mix in effective off-speed pitches to keep batters off balance. If an offensive tackle knows a pass rusher only has one move, he can similarly anticipate the move to neutralize it.

“Let’s say you have your fastball, your speed outside, and then you develop an inside move, now that offensive coordinator or offensive tackle doesn’t know what he’s going to do. That’s when you start elevating your name to being one of the best pass rushers in the game, bar none. It’s because it ain’t matter what you do. I can beat you inside, I can beat you outside, I can run through you.”

Sweat didn’t just lead the Bears in sacks last season, he made everyone around him better. Before Sweat, the Bears defense had 10 sacks and six interceptions in eight games. After Sweat they had 20 sacks and 16 interceptions in nine games. That’s practically double the sack rate and nearly triple the interception rate.

It’s clear why Sweat helped the Bears sack the QB more, but his impact on the uptick in interceptions is more indirect. Part of the reason Sweat played a big role in the interception rate was because he sped up the clock for opposing quarterbacks, which resulted in poor throws. Other times he drew double teams which allowed his teammates to generate pressure for the same outcome. One key in the Bears’ interception uptick however was that head coach and defensive playcaller Matt Eberflus didn’t need to blitz as much with Sweat in the fold.

The Bears defense is predicated on using the four defensive linemen to pressure the QB, and those four alone. That allows the team to drop seven men in pass coverage to clog up passing lanes. But the team wasn’t disrupting the backfield enough with their defensive line before Sweat, so Eberflus was forced to bring extra rushers. In those cases the blitzing player was taken out of the interception equation, and the players left in coverage had a little tougher task since they were working down one man. When Sweat arrived, however, the defensive line generated more pressure as a unit and Eberflus was able to leave all seven second-level players in coverage more often.

Any way you slice it, the Sweat trade was a home run for the Bears. If he realizes the untapped potential that Freeney sees, it could be even better.

Click here to follow the Under Center Podcast.

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