ONCE UPON A TIME ... WAY BACK IN 2018 ... THE BEARS MADE PLAYS LIKE THIS ...

ALL THE TIME. SO WHAT HAP­PENED TO THEIR TAKEAWAY MA­CHINE?

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO SPORTS - By Colleen Kane

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.

BRIAN CASSELLA/ CHICAGO TRI­BUNE PHO­TOS

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.

BRIAN CASSELLA/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

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

LEON HALIP/GETTY

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.

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