The Bears’ fortunes seemed to turn on a dime Thursday night at Soldier Field when rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky entered the game late in the first half. But the reality is that their defense set it all up — overcoming a shaky start with an encouraging performance.
Second-year outside linebacker Leonard Floyd had the flash play of the game for the first-team defense with a lightning-quick sack of starting quarterback Trevor Siemian on the Broncos’ first play from scrimmage. But the most notable sign of progress and hope was their third-down efficiency.
The Broncos’ converted 1-of-6 third-down plays (16.7 percent) against the Bears’ first- and second-team defense in the first half. Last year they were 22nd in the NFL in third-down efficiency (40.5 percent).
“We got exactly what we wanted,” defensive end Akiem Hicks said. “We came out there, we were fiery, we were competitive and we were aggressive. That’s what you want to see out of your defense on that first real live action.”
And each time it was pressure that forced the misplay. Among those making plays in those third-down situations included defensive ends Mitch Unrein and Akiem Hicks, cornerback Bryce Callahan, second-year defensive end Jonathan Bullard, reserve outside linebacker Dan Skuta and back-up inside linebacker Christian Jones.
The reserves built on that momentum against Broncos reserve in the second half. The Bears held the Broncos to 144 yards on 38 plays (3.8 yards per play), with eight consecutive third-down stops as the Bears built a 17-10 lead with 9:46 left in the fourth quarter. Third-and fourth-team players finished the game, as the Broncos rallied to win 24-17.
“We’re seeing everything we want to see out of our young guys,” Hicks said. “Something that we focus on is, everything we do we want to be aggressive; everything we do is chippie and guys are in there fighting and competing on every snap. A defensive team needs to have passion, play hard and knock people down.”
Floyd got the opener off to a fast start when he beat left tackle Menelik Watson off the edge and engulfed Siemian before he had a chance to even cock his arm to throw for a sack and seven-yard loss. Watson, for what it’s worth, was playing his first game for the Broncos. He was signed as a free agent after four disappointing seasons with the Raiders — just 17 starts, including five last season.
The momentum from Floyd’s early sack diminished quickly as the defense quickly was off-kilter and the Broncos drove 67 yards — from their 13-yard-line to the Bears 20 — in the next eight plays. The biggest issue was discipline, as the Bears were called for four penalties in a span of four snaps. Willie Young was called for a neutral zone infraction and unnecessary roughness. Callahan was called for pass interference against wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. And outside linebacker Sam Acho was penalized for roughing-the-passer.
That’s where the Bears’ third-down prowess kicked in. On third-and-seven from the Bears 20, Unrein bulled up the middle to pressure Siemian into an incompletion — and draw a holding penalty on starting guard Max Garcia. It could have been pass interference as well, but that infraction was not called and the Broncos settled for a Brandon McManus’ 38-yard field goal that gave Denver a 10-0 lead with 7:02 left in the first quarter.
With the second-team taking over against the Broncos’ second-team offensive line, the Bears’ defense pitched a shut out for the remainder of the half.
On third-and-one from the Bears 48, Bullard dropped running back Stevan Ridley for a three-yard loss to force one punt.
“[Bullard] went into the offseason with the right mindset,” Hicks said. “He gained some weight. Our front seven, in its entirety, we’re coming for you. [Pernell] McPhee is going to be back out there soon; Willie Young, just a lot of guys who have played a lot of football and are ready to get after it. I look forward to seeing what kind of production we can have during the regular season.”
On third-and-eight from the Broncos 32, Skuta tripped back-up quarterback Paxton Lynch from behind on a scramble to hold him to a two-yard gain.
On third-and-two from the Broncos 18, Jones came in free on a blitz to pressure Lynch into an incompletion that forced another punt. Trubisky took over from there and completely overshadowed the defensive effort. But the improvement was noticeable. The Broncos gained 94 yards on 26 plays in the first half (3.6 yards per play), including 40 rushing yards on 15 carries (2.7 avg.).
Rookie Eddie Jackson entered the game with Deon Bush at safety in the second quarter and made an impact play when he closed quickly to break up a pass from Lynch to tight end A.J. Derby on second down. It was not exactly a “flash” play, but for a team in need of safeties making plays on the ball, it looked like a revelation.
There were no big line-up changes. Nick Kwiatkoski started at inside linebacker for Danny Trevathan. Young started at outside linebacker for Pernell McPhee, who still is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
Callahan started at nickelback, with Cre’Von LeBlanc replacing him in the second half. Adrian Amos started with Quintin Demps at safety, but also had snaps with Jackson in the second quarter. Kyle Fuller and Johnthan Banks were the second-team safeties.
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