With 8 takeaways, improved Bears defense has a bark, but no bite

SHARE With 8 takeaways, improved Bears defense has a bark, but no bite
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Bears linebackers Willie Young (left) and Sam Acho (right) celebrate teammate Akiem Hicks’ fumble recovery last year. (AP)

Adrian Amos and Cre’Von LeBlanc missed the Bears’ only chance for a fumble recovery against the Titans in the third quarter on Sunday, perfectly illustrating the biggest flaw in an otherwise season of progress for the Bears’ defense: They can’t capitalize on their takeaway opportunities. And that was their only chance.

The Bears are significantly improved on defense under Vic Fangio and John Fox —11th in total yards (from 14th last season); 10th in yards per play (from 25th last season); and eighth in rushing yards per attempt (from 26th last season).

But they are 20th in scoring defense (down from 17th last year) and a big reason is their inability to force turnovers. The Bears are tied for 29th with just eight takeaways this season —five interceptions and three fumble recoveries. Only the Jaguars (seven) have fewer. The failure to recover DeMarco Murray’s fumble inside the Bears 5-yard line, after Tracy Porter stripped him, allowed the Titans to kick a field goal. The previous week, Amos dropped a sure interception on third down that gave the Giants a chance to kick a field goal.

Those points add up. In both games, those field goals ultimately forced the Bears (2-9) to score a touchdown on the final drive instead of a kick a field goal to tie.

“It’s a problem … we’re not getting enough takeaways, that’s for damn sure,” Fangio said. “It’s one of the reasons we have the record we have. We have to do a better job of getting playmakers to make plays at the ball and get the ball out.

“We had one last week [Porter’s strip]. We got it out, but we didn’t cover it. We gotta get more than that.”

The big question is: How? The Bears already have upgraded at several positions on defense under Fangio, from nose tackle Eddie Goldman and defensive end Akiem Hicks to outside linebackers Pernell McPhee and Leonard Floyd to inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan to Porter at cornerback.

The search for playmakers in the secondary continues. Porter leads the Bears with two interceptions. The only other players to get even one interception have not played in weeks: Jacoby Glenn was demoted to the practice squad in October. Safety Harold Jones-Quarter has been benched the last two games. Cornerback Deiondre Hall has missed the last seven games with an ankle injury.

“A lot of times, it’s guys that have a knack for doing it,” Fangio said. “They had one here a long time in [Charles] Tillman. We need more guys to develop that knack and get it ingrained in them to get it done.”

It’ll be interesting to see if Fangio and his staff can do that. Often, players with a knack — Tillman, Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher — either have it or they don’t. Then again, cornerback Tim Jennings, who had seven interceptions in his first five NFL seasons, had nine in 2012 in his third season under Lovie Smith. So playmakers can develop in the right scenario.

That 2012 team — the one that got Lovie fired — still casts a shadow over recent Bears defenses. That defense had 44 takeaways —still the most in the NFL in one season since 2007. In fact, the 2012 Bears had as many touchdowns off interceptions (eight) as last year’s Bears defense had interceptions. That team recovered more fumbles (20) than last year’s Bears forced (18).

Then again, Fangio has a history of developing defenses that know how to take away the ball. In four seasons with the 49ers, Fangio’s defenses had 122 takeaways (30.5 per season) — fourth most in the NFL in that span.

Despite the statistical improvement, Fangio has been piecing together this defense because of injuries — and Freeman’s suspension. Without better continuity, it’s going to be tough for him to repeat what he did with the 49ers. But he feels he has the players who can develop the knack for takeaways.

“We’re hopeful Floyd can do that,” Fangio said. “Hopeful that both inside ‘backers [Freeman and Trevathan] can do that. And the better pass rush you have, the better chance you have for them at the quarterback. And obviously at the safety and corner positions, where you have to get closer to make it happen.”

But players with a knack for making big plays generally get a lot of chances or produce a lot of chances. The Bears didn’t recover every fumble that Tillman forced — he produced 24 takeaways because he forced 42 fumbles.

First things first.

“We just need more opportunities,” linebacker Sam Acho said. “What TP [Porter] did was outstanding, ripping that ball out. That’s great. You’re not gong to get them all. But the more opportunities you get you have a better percentage.

“Coach Fox always says, ‘You get rewarded when you run to the ball.’ So we had some guys around the ball. We’re close. We just have to do a better job of forcing those turnovers and making the most of those opportunities.”

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