It could have been an interception. It might have been a pick-6. Bears cornerback Marcus Cooper was a split second away from the big play the Bears defense has been looking for when he jumped Julio Jones’ route on the sideline in Sunday’s loss to the Falcons — and settled for a pass break-up.
“Such a small margin [between a pass break-up and a pick-6],” Cooper said. “It really comes down to a missed opportunity for me. I’ve got to take advantage of that opportunity. The team was looking for a turnover at that point. I just didn’t handle it like I should have.”
The team that had the fewest takeaways in the NFL last year — a league-record-low 11 — came up empty again in a mostly sound defensive effort in a 23-17 loss to the Falcons. As random as takeaways often appear to be, the Bears might be getting closer. Besides Cooper’s near-miss, cornerback Kyle Fuller had a shot at a bobbled reception but couldn’t make the play.
The Bears defense is getting there. But the opener also revealed a pair of missing elements — avoiding the communications and mental errors like the one that led to Austin Hooper’s 88-yard touchdown reception; and developing the bite that forces quarterbacks, running backs and receivers into game-changing mistakes.
“I feel good about what we’re trying to do to get them,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said about the takeaways. “I don’t feel good about the results. There is a fine line.”
Every game is another opportunity for a defense that expects to take a big step this season. It’s a double-edged one this week against Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston. His 18 interceptions were the second most in the league behind Philip Rivers’ 21. His six lost fumbles were tied with Blake Bortles for the most in the league.
On the other hand, Winston also threw for 4,090 yards and threw 28 touchdowns last season.
“Jameis is a guy who believes in his arm and believes in his receivers,” Bears outside linebacker Sam Acho said, “so he’s going to throw into double coverage. He’s going to make some throws that, we’re going to have opportunities to pick off. So we’re going to take advantage of those opportunities.”
The Bears intercepted Winston twice in two games against him — by since-departed safety Harold Jones-Quartey in a 26-21 victory in 2015 and a 36-10 loss last season. But they also have added Cooper, who intercepted Winston twice in a 40-7 Cardinals rout of the Buccaneers in Week 2 last season — returning one 60 yards for a touchdown.
“If you want to be a great defense — a great secondary — you’ve got to have takeaways,” Cooper said. “We need to get those takeaways if we want to be what we want to be.”
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