What shouldn’t be lost in the Bears’ 48-10 shelling of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is just how good the opposing offense had been before rolling into Soldier Field on Sunday.
Ryan Fitzpatrick became the first player in NFL history to throw for 400 or more yards in three consecutive games, and had completed 70 percent of his passes while gaining an average of 11.1 yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns. The quartet of Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin and O.J. Howard looked almost impossible to cover, and this team put up 48, 27 and 27 points in its first three games.
Against the Bears’ defense, Fitzpatrick completed nine of 18 passes for 126 yards with no touchdowns and one interception before being yanked at halftime in favor of Jameis Winston. Jackson did get 112 yards on five catches, but Evans was limited to six catches for 59 yards while Godwin had two catches for 22 yards. Before he exited the game with an injury, Howard was targeted three times and didn’t catch any of them. Tampa Bay’s offense averaged 5.2 yards per play, and that was with the Bears’ defense backing off a bit in the second half.
Oh, and the Bears did this without Prince Amukamara — who had been their top cornerback through three games — or, after he was ejected late in the second quarter, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks.
“It’s not just about me,” outside linebacker Khalil Mack said. “You see the guys the back end making plays and that’s what you want to see. It’s a good feeling, especially going into the bye.”
That’s a spot-on analysis from the guy who’s playing like the best defensive player in the NFL right now.
Undrafted rookie Kevin Toliver II got beat once by Jackson but otherwise had a solid game. Fifth-round rookie Bilal Nichols made a few splash plays. Aaron Lynch recorded his first career interception.
A defensive back? Check. A linebacker? Check. A defensive lineman? Check. Every unit contributed with its depth.
Mack’s right: It’s not all about him. What the Bears proved on Sunday — and through the first month of the season — is they have the depth to sustain this elite level of play once they return from their off week in mid-October.
Then again, a good chunk of what the Bears’ have done on defense has been about Mack. He notched a strip-sack for the fourth consecutive game on Sunday, and he was able to grab Winston’s arm to force a floating pass that fell into the waiting arms of Danny Trevathan for an interception.
All the focus on him leads to pick-your-poison decisions for opposing offenses: Do you get beat by Mack, or do you get beat by someone else? Because the Bears’ defense has proved it has plenty of other guys who can beat an opposing offense, from standouts like Hicks to reserves like Nichols.
“(Mack’s) making a play every other play,” Trevathan said. “He’s in the backfield hitting the quarterback — the quarterback is not comfortable at any time. … It feels good to have a defense where they gotta pick and choose where they want to go. Just to have that, I’ve seen in it in spurts, but to execute it for four quarters feels good.”
The Bears head into the bye week with eight interceptions, equaling their season totals from 2015, 2016 and 2017. Creating more turnovers was a major emphasis for this group during OTAs, minicamps and training camp, and a lot of the early success comes from staying on assignments and knowing when and how to be aggressive.
But part of it, too, is that for this defense, creating turnovers is sort of a contagious thing.
“They come in bunches,” safety Eddie Jackson, who had an interception Sunday, said. “So we feel like that shifts the momentum for us. We create one turnover, now we know they’re coming. It gives another guy — like, okay, it’s my time to step up. That’s just something we love right now with this defense, how we feed off each other’s energy, we feed off turnovers, we feed off the momentum we have with each other.”
With four more sacks, the Bears’ season total is up to 18, becoming only the seventh team since 2000 to have that many sacks in the first four games of a season. The others: The 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars (who reached the AFC Championship), the 2015 Denver Broncos (who won the Super Bowl), the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs (who were an 11-5 wild card team), the 2004 Philadelphia Eagles (who reached the Super Bowl), the 2001 Green Bay Packers (who reached the divisional round of the playoffs) and the 2000 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who were a 10-6 wild card team).
None of those teams had as many as the eight interceptions the Bears have, too (the 2000 Bucs were the closest with seven).
While four games doesn’t make a season, what the Bears’ defense has done to begin 2018 has been nothing short of a franchise-altering effort. This is, right now, the best defense in the NFL. And there’s no reason to doubt it’ll lose that title any time soon.
“We want to get (back to) the old school Chicago Bears style of defense,” Jackson said. “We want to be the No. 1 defense in the league. I said that during camp, and now we added Khalil, that helps the goal, raising the bar higher. We want to come in every week and continue to get better and improve and just come out here and showcase the type of defense we know we have.”