The Bears’ four interceptions garnered most of the attention after their 37-13 victory over the Lions on Sunday at Soldier Field. But it was the two fumble recoveries that set the all-important tone.
The Bears’ defense, known for forcing fumbles under Lovie Smith, had gone five games without recovering a fumble before Sunday. (The fumble the Bears recovered against the Eagles on Monday night was forced and recovered by special teams).
The picks were more on Lions quarterback Matt Stafford, especially the two that were returned for touchdowns. Major Wright and Charles Tillman were in the right place at the right time.
But Julius Peppers and Tim Jennings made things happen when the forced fumbles that the Bears parlayed into a touchdown and field goal for a 10-0 lead with 4:42 left in the first quarter. It was the first fumble recovery for the Bears defense since Lance Briggs stripped Packers running back James Starks, with Peppers recovering.
Peppers clotheslined Calvin Johnson on a short pass play on a second-and-11 from the Lions 48. Johnson coughed up the ball and linebacker Brian Urlacher scooped it up and returned it 17 yards to the Lions 30. Four plays later — aided by an unnecessary roughness penalty on Lions defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch –the Bears scored on Matt Forte’s six-yard touchdown run.
Jennings forced the next one on the Lions’ next possession. On a third-and-eight play from the Lions 38, Nate Burleson beat him for a reception and escaped Jennings’ tackle attempt for a 20-yard gain along the Bears sideline, Jennings came up from behind to punch the ball out. Somehow the ball and every Bears player attempting to get the fumble stayed in bounds, including Jennings, who recovered the fumble at the Bears 38.
”He got a little separation. He was able to get a couple of yards after the catch,” Jennings said. ”But one thing about this defense is we never quit. I kept running to the football and I saw the opportunity for me to punch it out and I was able to get a hand on it and somehow the ball just kind of stayed in bounds.”
Jennings has a knack for making plays when he either gets burned or looks like he’s about to get burned. Against the Packers last year at Soldier Field — after Jennings had replaced starter Zack Bowman earlier in the game — Jennings missed a tackle on wide receiver James Jones in the fourth quarter of a 17-all game. But as Jones sprinted upfield along the Packers sideline, Urlacher and Lance Briggs punched the ball out and Jennings — trying to recover after missing the tackle — was there for the recovery, again lucky that both the ball and he stayed in bounds. That set up a Robbie Gould field goal that won the game, 20-17.
And against the Bills in Toronto, the Bills led 19-14 and looked like they had a chance for a big gain when Jennings bit on a double move by Stevie Johnson. But Ryan Fitzpatrick’s pass wasn’t quite far enough ahead of Johnson and Jennings was able to recover and intercept the ball and return it 39 yards to the Bills 23. That led to Jay Cutler’s two-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett that gave the Bears a 22-19 victory.
That was Jennings’ last interception until Sunday, when he intercepted a Stafford pass intended for former Bear Rashied Davis. But by then the game was well in hand, with the Bears leading 37-6 with 13:29 left in the game. His forced fumble and recovery in the first quarter was a much bigger play — and arguably an even better sign the Bears’ defense, which struggled through much of the first half of the season, has regained its 2010 form.
”Every guy was out there hungry and having fun,” Jennings said. ”We had a beat on the ball and the quarterback. The defensive line got after it. We took advantage of every gift we had out there.”