Eddie Jackson

Schrock: Bears' defense sees elite future on horizon after finishing Cardinals

The Bears' defense believes elite is in its future, and that starts with finishing the 2023 season with a dominant statement

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CHICAGO -- The Bears' second defensive possession Sunday evening against the Arizona Cardinals was a taste of what they believe will come in 2024.

On first-and-10 from their own 25, Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray dropped back and fired a pass to tight end Trey McBride down the right side. Cornerback Jaylon Johnson read it the whole way and easily batted it away.

Three plays later, after the Cardinals picked up a first down, rookie cornerback Tyrique Stevenson blanketed Michael Wilson and knocked away Murray's pass. Two plays later, on third-and-6, second-year slot corner Kyler Gordon perfectly covered Rondale Moore on a slot fade and swatted the pass away to force a punt.

This Bears' defense is growing, gaining confidence, and sees no limit to what they can become.

"We going to the top," Stevenson said after the Bears' 27-16 Christmas Eve win over the Cardinals at Soldier Field. "I believe in every guy, and I know every guy believes in each other. We going to the top.

"This whole DB secondary is one of the best in the nation," Stevenson said later. "One of the best I've been apart of. With us getting better throughout the rest of the year, just know that we're going to come back and be the No. 1 secondary in the nation."

The Bears' defense talked all year about being elite. They spoke of their belief in the process. They had certainty that the right pieces were in place. All that was needed was time to come together -- to grow as one.

That message stayed the same after they gave up 31 points in the season-opening loss to the Green Bay Packers and 40 to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3. The Bears watched safety Eddie Jackson and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds miss time with injuries in the middle of the season.

But the group got healthy, and an NFL trade deadline deal for edge rusher Montez Sweat was the gel needed to take the group from a unit with talented pieces and potential to a near-elite wrecking ball that opposing offenses feared.

Entering Sunday's game, the Bears' defense had forced 13 turnovers (one fumble was forced on special teams) and had given up just 18.5 points per game in its last four games. Opponents had averaged just 306 yards against the Bears in that span.

Inexplicable fourth-quarter meltdowns against the Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns are the only reason the Bears didn't enter Sunday's game against the Cardinals at 7-7 and in full control of their playoff destiny behind a feared defense.

As good as the defense had been over the past month, finishing was the one thing the unit had not accomplished. They let the Lions score 15 points in four minutes in Week 11 and allowed Joe Flacco to throw for 212 yards in the fourth quarter as the Browns scored 13 unanswered to drive a stake through the Bears' playoff hopes in Week 15.

They had been good. Damn near great. But they had to find the killer instinct that all great defenses possess to reach the next level.

There was a worry on the outside that the loss to the Browns would cause the Bears to let go of the rope. That all the adversity they have fought through this season would finally get the best of them, and they'd roll over.

But the Bears' defense has been unshakable all season, and they saw Sunday's game against the Cardinals as a vital opportunity to throw their muscle around and show they can put a team to sleep when given the chance.

The Bears' defense held the Cardinals to seven points and 134 total yards in the first half as they roared out to a 21-7 lead.

As is usually the case in the NFL, the Cardinals fought back and cut the lead to eight in the fourth quarter. After the Bears' offense couldn't convert a third-and-1, Murray and the Cardinals offense got the ball back with a chance to tie the game with 4:21 remaining.

The Bears' defense already had blown double-digit, fourth-quarter leads to the Lions, Browns, and Denver Broncos this season. Their killer instinct didn't materialize in any of those moments, and their playoff hopes died on the vine because of it.

But the Bears never let go of the rope. They see the importance of finishing the season strong, believing that positive momentum created in late December and early January will serve them well heading toward 2024.

So after Murray and the Cardinals picked up one first down, the Bears defense's killer instinct finally showed up, with rookie cornerback Terell Smith nothing back-to-back pass breakups on third- and fourth-and-6 to essentially seal the win.

"True resilience," safety Eddie Jackson said of the Bears' defensive performance after the Browns loss. "Everybody knows adversity is going to hit. It's all about how we respond. We preach that to ourselves. I feel like we come in, and week in and week out, we show that. We going to keep getting up. We get knocked down, and we're going to keep standing up.

"The future is bright. It's headed in the right direction," Jackson said with a big smile. "The future is definitely bright."

It wasn't just that the Bears finished. It was that they -- outside of a blown coverage on a touchdown pass to James Conner and poor tackling on a 39-yard score from Greg Dortch -- put a punchless Cardinals offense in a sleeper hold and never let go.

The Bears held the Cardinals to 4.7 yards per rush and held Murray to 6.1 yards per attempt. They didn't force a turnover, but they had five tackles for loss, two sacks, and four quarterback hurries.

Sweat almost made the play of the night when he used his athleticism to chase down Murray and then perfectly timed a jump to bat his pass down. Gordon notched a sack and led the team in tackles, with second-year safety Jaquan Brisker not far behind. Johnson and Stevenson borderline lockdown on the outside, holding the Cardinals' top two receivers to four combined catches.

This defense is growing. Each week brings an injection of confidence and swagger integral to an elite unit.

"We know what type of team we are," Brisker said. "It's important to continue to get better. Continue to build that chemistry. Continue to be who we really want to be and who we really are."

"There's just been no quit in this team," linebacker T.J. Edwards said. "There's been no quit. It's definitely a locker room I'm proud to be apart of. We've done some really good things this year. We let the chips fall where they may. ... I just think everyone in this room is hungry to win, hungry to put their best foot forward."

Jackson was the first member of the 2023 Bears defense to use the word "dominant' when describing what was possible. He did so in the middle of training camp. It was a shocking statement considering what the 2022 Bears put on film on that end of the ball.

Four months later, the Bears' defense put the Cardinals away with two stellar plays from a fifth-round rookie cornerback who didn't flinch in the biggest moment. A game that started with three statement plays by the Bears' young, ascending defensive backfield ended with the fourth member ensuring another collapse would not be in the cards on Christmas Eve.

Call it growth. Call it resilience. Call it whatever you want.

What the Bears' defense sees are the possibilities in front of them -- both in the 2023 closing stretch and the future.

"Having young guys like that step up in big moments, it just shows you how special this defense is going to be," Jackson said.

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