They say takeaways come in bunches. The old football adage simplifies a philosophy that if coaches and players focus on turning the ball over on defense, eventually there will be a breakthrough. Once that breakthrough happens a snowball effect can start.
One of the pillars of the Bears defense is taking the ball away. They play a “bend don’t break” style that doesn’t mind giving up plays in front of the sticks as long as they’re keeping teams out of the endzone, and one of the preferred ways to do that is to create turnovers. Not just capitalize on mistakes. Create turnovers.
That’s exactly what the Bears did last week against the Commanders. First, Greg Stroman undercut a pass intended for Curtis Samuel for an interception. That interception led to a Bears touchdown to push the team’s lead to 27-3. Then, Terell Smith raked a ball out of Logan Thomas’ hands and recovered the ball for another takeaway. That one didn’t lead to points, but it kept points off the board as the Commanders were approaching midfield.
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So how does a team like the Bears go from two takeaways over four games, to two takeaways in one game? How does a team open the takeaway floodgates so that they can start coming in bunches?
“The first thing you have to do is you have to have a strong belief system as a coaching staff,” said cornerbacks coach and passing game coordinator Jon Hoke. “Obviously, that’s here with coach (Matt) Eberflus.”
This is Hoke’s third stint with the Bears. He played defensive back for the team in 1980, then he returned to coach defensive backs under Lovie Smith and Marc Trestman from 2009-2014. Smith preached the same emphasis on takeaways as Eberflus, so the philosophy is nothing new to him.
“Coach (Eberflus) is almost fanatical, even more than when I was here before with coach Smith. He’s fanatical about it. You’ve got to constantly be mindful of coaching that on every play. For them, it becomes second nature. Just like anything. You keep doing it over and over and they’ll come. As long as you put the effort in, it will come for you.”
One of the guys who has put the effort in to create takeaways is Jaylon Johnson. He’s been a premiere shutdown corner in coverage for several seasons, but takeaways have been lacking from his game. It’s no secret that the Bears want to see him turn the ball over, or put himself in position to turn the ball over, more often before offering him a lucrative contract extension. Johnson has done that to a degree this year. He forced a fumble in Week 2 against the Bucs that could have been a game-changing play to help the Bears get a win, but the ball took big bounces away from defenders and the Bucs were able to recover. It was a good play with some bad luck. Then Johnson got hurt, which forced him to miss two games. Now, it sounds like Johnson is ready to return to the field and resume his quest to create more takeaways.
“I’m looking forward to hopefully getting my hands on some,” said Johnson. “I know Eddie (Jackson) is due for some. We all want to come back and let that be contagious, let that spread around the room and everybody start making plays and getting those turnovers.”
The Bears face a Vikings team in Week 6 that has been susceptible to turning the ball over. They’ve fumbled 10 times in five games, with quarterback Kirk Cousins responsible for five of those fumbles. Cousins has added four interceptions on top of that high fumble total. Add it together and you’ve got a team that averaged nearly three turnovers per game leading into this Sunday’s game.
Sounds like a great opportunity for the defense to keep the takeaway train rolling. Yet, the Bears also need to guard against giving up big plays. Even though Justin Jefferson– arguably the league’s best wide receiver– won’t play, Cousins can rack up big plays. Rookie wide receiver Jordan Addison and tight end T.J. Hockenson have been great complementary targets this season. The duo have combined for 49 catches, 503 yards and five touchdowns this year.
The way the defense looks at it, they can’t play overly aggressive to try to create takeaways because of the Vikings’ propensity to turn the ball over. They just need to keep doing their thing.
“When you get a play call and you get your assignment, you’ve got to know if your job is to stay deep, or key this guy, or read these keys,” said safety Elijah Hicks. “If you do those things correctly then you’re able to make those plays and neutralize whoever is supposed to be making their plays.”