Picks to click: Bears defense has eye on more takeaways

Bears safety Eddie Jackson knows the random nature of takeaways as much as anyone.

Jackson made an immediate, record-setting mark in the NFL in his first two seasons with eight interceptions, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and five touchdowns — including returns of 76, 75 and 65 yards.

Since then, his magic touch has withered. In his last three seasons — often surrounded by playmakers such as Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Roquan Smith –Jackson has two interceptions, five forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one touchdown. His luck even turned, with two pick-6s getting nullified for questionable pass interference penalties in 2020. It comes and goes.

“I don’t know. It’s something about football,” Jackson said. “They always say, ‘When they come, they come in bunches.’ You just find yourself in a place with the ball and you’ve just got to capitalize on those plays.”

The drop in big plays and takeaways has been difficult for Jackson in recent years — and has been an especially sore subject since he signed a five-year, $58.4 million contract extension in 2020 that made him the highest-paid safety in the league. But his eyes light up when asked about takeaways now. He’s that confident that Matt Eberflus’ defense will return the bite to a once-vaunted defense.

“I really don’t know what it is. I can’t describe the feeling. I just know they’re coming,” Jackson said. “I get happy about it all the time, talking about it.

“It’s just they way we work and the way we run and the position we get put in. It’s always up to the person to make the plays when the plays come to ’em. But the way we run to the ball, man. It’s like when you run to the ball, good things seem to happen — a fumble might pop out or a tipped overthrow or something like that.”

It remains to be seen if the Bears will live up to the “T” in Eberflus’ H.I.T.S. principle. But they definitely need the boost. The Bears’ had 22 takeaways in 2017 and a league-leading 36 (including 27 interceptions) as Vic Fangio’s defense peaked in 2018. But since Fangio left to become the head coach of the Broncos, the Bears have had 19, 18 and 16 turnovers the past three seasons. Their total of 53 in that span ranks 28th in the NFL. Their 28 interceptions ranks 30th.

With Eberflus as defensive coordinator, the Colts were consistently taking the ball away –with 26, 23, 25 and 33 takeaways in his four seasons. They had 15 interceptions in 2018, 2019 and 2020 and 19 last season. Their 107 total takeaways in that span ranked second in the NFL.

Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams have instilled the hustle ethic it takes to make it work with the Bears defense.

“I used to tell myself, ‘I’m running to every ball.’ But you [don’t],” Jackson said. “Now it’s like we’re running to every ball. It’s just that feeling you get.”

Every defensive coach in America wants his team to get takeaways. But Eberflus, Williams and the coaching staffs they’ve been a part of have been better than most at instilling that mindset.

“We’re fanatical about it,” Williams said. “We don’t just put it up on the wall and say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna get turnovers.’ We work on it in practice. We work on it in individual [drills]. We work on it in group work [and] in our team situations.

“We practice intensely, so that what usually happens in practice usually [happens] in the game. You expect that however you practice, that’s how you’ll play. I just feel good about us taking the ball away.”

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