Four plays into their opening drive of the 2022 season, the Bears’ defense already was defending the red zone — with the 49ers driving to the 16-yard line after Trey Lance’s 31-yard pass to wide-open receiver Brandon Aiyuk.
But on the fifth play, the Bears defense responded and lived up to its promise to back up all their hustle and intensity and playing smart under coach Matt Eberflus by executing the key element of Eberflus’ H.I.T.S. principle by taking the ball away.
On first-and-10, the 49ers went to a pet play — a handoff to elusive wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who gained four yards before Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson “Peanut punched” the ball from Samuel, with rookie safety Jaquan Brisker recovering at the Bears’ 12-yard line.
Just like that, a mindset became a reality.
“I think getting the ball out confirms the H.I.T.S. principle,” linebacker Nick Morrow said following the Bears’ 19-10 victory over the 49ers on Sunday. “And I think [it] taught guys to really believe it — like ‘Here it is.’ Because [the 49ers] got out a little bit. They got to the edge a little bit. But guys were running to the ball, got the ball out and we recovered. That’s huge.”
The Bears’ defense was more efficient than spectacular against a 49ers offense with a new quarterback in Trey Lance and without injured All-Pro tight end George Kittle. But what the Bears did looks repeatable. They allowed 331 yards — higher than last year’s average of 316.7. They allowed 8-of-17 third-down conversions (47.1%) — higher than last year’s average of 38.4%. They allowed 176 rushing yards — higher than last year’s average of 125.
But they allowed only 10 points, well below last year’s average of 23.9. When the Bears allowed 331 yards last season — against the Seahawks and Vikings — they allowed 24 points.
They did it by being good when they had to be and making their turnovers count. After the Bears rallied to take a 13-10 lead with 12:45 left in the fourth quarter, Eddie Jackson muted the 49ers’ response by stepping in front of Samuel for an interception at the 49ers 47-yard line and returning it 26 yards to the 21. The fired-up Bears offense scored five plays later for a 19-10 lead. Mother Nature — on the Bears’ side, interestingly — did the rest.
That Jackson made the key play was not insignificant. After tough luck and subpar play the past two seasons, the pressure is on him to produce difference-making plays. And he did.
“It felt good,” said Jackson, whose last interception was in the 2019 season finale against the Vikings. “Honestly, I wish I would have scored. That one’s on me. I owe them something. But if felt good, especially coming in a situation like that.”
A lot went right for the Bears against the 49ers — from the 49ers committing ill-timed penalties to Kittle not playing to the weather. But they weren’t about to turn this one down.
“It’s just a good start. We’ve still got 16 games,” Johnson said. “Just a good start for sure. I thought there was a lot of doubt going into this game. To get this statement game was really good against a very, very good team and a good organization.”
But the Bears earned a right to crow a little.
“Nobody’s surprised in the locker room. Everyone outside is more surprised than we are,” Jackson said. “We know what we’ve got. I feel like we’re gonna shock a lot of people with the way we work –[nobody] works harder and the mindset we have as a team and what we’re building is something special.”
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