Jonathan Bullard, Bears’ ‘D’ take another step forward vs. Cardinals

For a moment, the Bears’ defense looked like it had a play it could hang its hat on in the team’s 24-23 victory Saturday night.

Safety Quintin Demps’ strip of wide receiver J.J. Nelson was picked out of the air by nickel back Cre’Von LeBlanc, who returned it 77 yards for a touchdown that momentarily gave the Bears a 9-0 lead against the Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

But the play was challenged by Cardinals coach Bruce Arians and reversed when officials ruled that Nelson’s knee touched the ground before he lost possession. Instead of a takeaway and a defensive score, the Cardinals had a third-down conversion and a first down at the Bears’ 32.

It was a tough break — and the right call — but a good sign for the Bears, who are desperate to improve their takeaways after getting an NFL-low and franchise-record-low 11 last season.

Bears defensive end Jonathan Bullard (bottom) and linebacker Sam Acho (left) combine to sack Cardinals back-up quarterback Drew Stanton in the first half Saturday night. But the play was nullified by an illegal-use-of-hands penalty on cornerback Kyle Fuller. (Ralph Freso/AP)

Even without that takeaway, the Bears’ defense looked more and more like the strong suit that will have to carry more than its share of the load — in the early going, if not all season. The Bears allowed a touchdown but forced the Cardinals to go for it on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line to get it.

After Chris Johnson gained three yards for a second-and-goal at the 1, Palmer threw incomplete, and defensive end Jonathan Bullard stopped Johnson for no gain on third-and-goal. On fourth down, Palmer — with Leonard Floyd in his face — hit tight end Jermaine Gresham in the back of the end zone for a touchdown that gave the Cardinals a 7-3 lead.

But, overall, it was another encouraging performance for a defense that was missing five expected Week    1 starters: defensive end Akiem Hicks (Achilles tendon), outside linebacker Pernell McPhee (knee), inside linebacker Danny Trevathan (knee), cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) and nickel back Bryce Callahan (ankle).

“When you put together an effort like we did [in] the first two quarters — [that’s] phenomenal defense,” outside linebacker Willie Young said during a sideline interview on the TV broadcast. “A few miscues here and there, but when you put together a group of guys who don’t have a lot of chemistry — the way we played says a lot about where we can go.”

Of the new starters, Bullard made the biggest impact. A 2016 third-round pick, Bullard built on a good start against the Broncos last week with two “stuffs” — stopping David Johnson for a one-yard loss in the first quarter and tackling Chris Johnson for the no gain at the goal line.

He also sacked backup Drew Stanton late in the first half, but the play was nullified by a penalty on Kyle Fuller. Bullard suffered a glute injury in the second quarter and did not play in the second half.

LeBlanc had an eventful, if uneven, game. He was called for holding to negate a third-down incompletion in the first quarter but responded with a well-timed pass breakup against Larry Fitzgerald. He also had the near-miss on the Nelson fumble that was overturned.

Veteran safety Adrian Amos started opposite Demps, but rookie Eddie Jackson made an impact almost as soon as he replaced Amos in the second quarter. On a first-and-10 at the Bears’ 32, Palmer tried to hit Nelson in the end zone, but Jackson made a leaping one-handed breakup — coming close to a highlight-reel interception.

Overall, the Bears’ first- and second-team defense held the Cardinals to 101 yards on 29 plays (3.5-yard average) in the first half, including 17 yards on nine carries (1.9 average). It’s still early, but the Bears’ defense has a solid foundation to build on heading into the third preseason game against the Titans in Nashville, Tennessee, next Sunday.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.

Email: mpotash@suntimes.com

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