ONCE UPON A TIME ... WAY BACK IN 2018 ... THE BEARS MADE PLAYS LIKE THIS ...
ALL THE TIME. SO WHAT HAPPENED TO THEIR TAKEAWAY MACHINE?
The show within the show ramped up around this time last year.
Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos swung imaginary jump ropes as Prince Amukamara did Double Dutch. Jackson conducted a noiseless symphony. Amukamara morphed into a Motown singer, playing for the camera as a dozen teammates danced (mostly) in sync behind him.
As the Bears defense piled up 36 takeaways in 2018 — the most in the NFL — and scored six touchdowns, the players added to the giddy joy with their preplanned celebrations.
A year later, as the Bears prepare to face Matthew Stafford and the Lions on Sunday at Soldier Field, it’s safe to say Amukamara and his fellow defensive backs have more ideas than they would like still sitting in the bank.
The Bears are tied for 16th with 11 takeaways after having 21 at the midway point last year. If you remove the five they got against a Redskins offense that is among the worst in the NFL, they would be tied for 29th.
The Bears had only two games last year without an interception, and they already have five without a pick this year. Eleven players had at least one pick in 2018; only Kyle Fuller (three) and Ha Ha ClintonDix (two) have any this season. And the Bears had just one takeaway in the last three games.
The explanation likely is multilayered, with some truth to several reasons. Playing from behind. Physical or mental fatigue. Offenses knowing whom not to take chances against. Opposing teams doing everything in their power to neutralize Khalil Mack. The Bears losing a gamewrecker when Akiem Hicks injured his left elbow. And perhaps even a new coordinator in Chuck Pagano.
But Bears defenders say their approach to going after the ball remains the same.
“We just have to continue to emphasize it,” Jackson said. “We continue to fight, show the film from last year — everybody swarming to the ball, second guy in trying to get a hand on the ball. Just little stuff like that. We try to stay on top of the details (so we can) roll it over.”
Enter the Lions and Stafford, who threw four interceptions in two games against the Bears last season, including a pick-six to Jackson. Stafford, the 11th-year veteran, is having a career season, averaging 312.4 yards per game with 19 touchdowns.
Pagano said Stafford is “playing as good as I’ve seen,” but he also expects to see something else Sunday at Soldier Field.
“There’s going to be opportunities,” Pagano said. “He’s thrown five (picks) this year. Guys have taken advantage of some throws. You know he’s not afraid to take some chances, and he counts on his guys to make some plays. We have just as much right to that ball as they do. Our guys will be in position. We’ve got to attack that thing at the high point and be aggressive on those things. He’s going to give us some shots.”
It would probably help Sunday if the Bears weren’t trying to catch up on the scoreboard, as they have in multiple games this season.
The offense hasn’t scored a first-half touchdown during the Bears’ four-game losing streak, and the Bears have trailed at halftime in three of those four games — against the Raiders, Saints and Eagles — by a combined 41-10.
It was the first explanation Bears coach Matt Nagy gave Friday for the defense’s lack of takeaways. He would love to ditch the offense’s recent ineptitude early in games — which included punting on their last four opening possessions — and see what the defense could do with, say, a 14-0 lead.
Jackson said teams have been able to play the Bears differently with a lead.
“We’re going up against a lot of veteran quarterbacks, so if they’re up in the game, they’re not going to throw the ball as much or will try not to make mistakes,” the safety said. “They’ll just run the ball, tell the guys, ‘Look hold the ball with two hands, don’t try to do too much to get the tough yards.’
“For us, (we need) 11 to swarm to the ball, and the second man there tries to get the ball out, rip it out from him. We’ve just got to get it.”
Playing from behind hasn’t been the only side effect of a bad offense.
The Bears defense has been on the field for an average of 31 minutes, 26 seconds this season, eighth-most in the NFL. In the last three games, the defense has been on the field 55.4% of the time.
So it’s a legitimate question whether that creates fatigue, which in turn reduces playmaking potential. Amukamara said he hasn’t felt physically fatigued, but he recognized there could be the potential for mental fatigue among players.
“I hear you guys always say, ‘Do you guys feel like, here we go again?’ ” Amukamara said. “I’m sure that could be natural, but as a defender and as a defensive team, we want all the pressure. We actually want to be on the field as much as we can, just so we can make plays. We want to be the strength of this team.”
On that note, they all have a play or two they would love to rewind.
Amukamara clapped his hands together in frustration when he whiffed on a Philip Rivers deep shot to Keenan Allen in the end zone in the fourth quarter against the Chargers.
Jackson recognized his playmaking opportunities are fewer because some opponents try to avoid the All-Pro, who had six interceptions and three touchdowns in 2018. But he wondered if he could have played the receiver differently on another Rivers deep shot.
Fuller said there’s always moments he could have put himself in a better position to make a play, and he tries to channel any frustration into fuel for getting better.
“It’s being hard on yourself, challenging yourself, saying you’re going to figure out a way to get to the spot (you need to),” Fuller said. “The job is really on every play.”
If the Bears start capitalizing more on that mentality, they also plan to celebrate the breakthrough properly. Amukamara, who helped lead tug of war and “Cha-Cha Slide” celebrations this year, said they have more in store.
“Yes, we have some,” Amukamara said. “We just love doing it because it energizes the whole team and energizes the stadium. We’re all about bringing the juice.”
First, they have to bring the takeaways.
One of the lasting images of the 2018 season was this celebration after an Eddie Jackson pick-6 — with wide receiver Taylor Gabriel in the middle of it all — en route to a 25-20 victory over the Vikings on Nov. 18 at Soldier Field.
Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller, with ball, celebrates with teammates after intercepting a pass against the Bills in the Bears’ 41-9 victory last season in Orchard Park, N.Y
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, averaging 312.4 yards per game in his 11th season, is “playing as good as I’ve seen,” Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano says.