Akiem Hicks has seen cornerback Kyle Fuller make plays all season. But not quite like this.
“I saw Kyle hit Cam Newton in the flat,” said Hicks, referring to a second-quarter play in which Fuller stopped Newton for no gain on a play-action keeper. “Cam Newton ran out of the pocket, Kyle came up and popped him and got in his face. I hadn’t seen that from Kyle. It was just awesome to see, like he’s getting confident and comfortable in this role on this team.”
While rookie Mitch Trubisky has been the focal point of the Bears since he became the starter three weeks ago, the impressive performance of the Bears’ defense has been the most tangible evidence the Bears are heading in the right direction. Almost across the board, Bears defenders are at or near a career-peak level under coordinator Vic Fangio in the first half.
With six sacks and nine quarterback hits in seven games, Hicks is having a career year at defensive end in the face of what often has been a double-whammy for burgeoning players — high expectations for a leap toward a Pro Bowl berth, and the reward of a four-year, $48 million contract extension in anticipation of that quantum leap.
Outside linebackers Leonard Floyd (four sacks, eight quarterback hits, a safety) and Pernell McPhee (four sacks, nine quarterback hits), nose tackle Eddie Goldman (three stuffs, 1½ sacks) and linebacker Danny Trevathan (two sacks, interception, fumble recovery) have met expectations as playmakers. Rookie Eddie Jackson already has made NFL history with takeaway returns for touchdowns of 75 and 76 yards in the same game.
Even spare parts are playing better than ever. Inside linebacker Christian Jones is the team’s leading tackler with 40 despite starting four games. Safety Adrian Amos, who lost his starting job in training camp, has been much improved as a fill-in for Quintin Demps, including a 90-yard interception return for a touchdown.
But Fuller, the Bears’ 2014 first-round draft pick, best exemplifies the Fangio Effect — the knack for getting the most out of talented players by putting them in the best position to succeed — that is driving the Bears’ defense to new heights. Pegged to be gone after the Bears declined to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, Fuller is blossoming into a keeper.
Fuller’s team-high eight pass break-ups (Jackson is second on the team with four) barely quantify Fuller’s effectiveness in coverage. And as evidenced by the Newton play, Fuller is playing with an aggressiveness and a verve rarely if ever seen before in his four years with the Bears. It’s like the Bears signed a new guy.
“Confidence,” Fangio said. “He’s playing with confidence. He’s enjoying the game. Everything kind of snowballs. Things can snowball downhill. Things can gather momentum in your favor.
“I think he’s riding the momentum — feeling good about himself; playing good; having fun; playing hard. I don’t know how many [people] noticed how hard he ran on Jackson’s interception return to get a block there. The guy’s having fun and it’s good to see.”
The challenge now is to keep the momentum building. Sometimes you take a big jump, make a few plays, feel pretty good about yourself — and Drew Brees torches you back to reality and reminds you just how far you have to go to be somebody.
This defense is eager for the challenge.
“They’re a great group to work with,” Fangio said when asked what he’s most proud of with this defense. “They’re very attentive. They’re hungry. They want to improve. They accept challenges. They’re in a good mindset.”
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