GLENDALE, Ariz. — Eddie Jackson thought he had his second interception of the game — and the fifth-straight takeaway by the Bears defense — when the safety sprinted into the Cardinals’ end zone with 14 seconds left and leaped, Lambeau-like, into the arms of Bears supporters sitting in the State Farm Stadium bleachers.
It didn’t count. Khalil Mack had jumped offside. But it proved an appropriate celebration, two plays later, when Mack sacked rookie Josh Rosen on a Hail Mary attempt to seal an ugly 16-14 win at State Farm Stadium.
The Bears improved to 2-1 and claimed sole possession of first place in the NFC North — above the rival Packers and Vikings, who lost in upsets earlier Sunday — for the first time since Week 16 of the 2013 season.
They got there on the backs of their defense, which shut out the Cardinals over the last three quarters. They forced punts on all three second-quarter series, and then rattled off four straight takeaways in the second half.
“Those guys are monsters,” said Kyle Long, evoking defenses of generations past. “They really are.”
Jackson picked off starter Sam Bradford’s third pass of the second half, and cornerback Sherrick McManis did the same on his third throw of the following drive. When Mack forced Bradford to fumble on a scramble with 11:23 to play, he sealed his demotion. Saying he needed a spark, Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks switched to Rosen, who hadn’t attempted an NFL pass. Cornerback Bryce Callahan picked him off on fourth-and-5 with 1:10 to play.
“Our personality’s different,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “With the addition of Khalil we’re starting to re-create, or re-find, our identity. Resilience is showing.”
Matt Nagy has a special defense. He knows it.
“When I say ‘special,’ our guys and our coaches, they feel that right now,” the Bears coach said. “They feel that they can be in a different league of their own, but it takes hard work. It can’t be something that you do for one quarter at a time.”
A great defense and a sputtering offense, however, is not a sustainable plan for success. If the Bears want to be in first place outside of September, they need Trubisky to lead them to touchdowns, not field goals.
“It speaks wonders for [the defense],” running back Tarik Cohen said. “But we can’t keep leaning on them for everything to bail us out these situations.”
Cody Parkey atoned for a first-quarter miss by making his next three attempts, including a 43-yarder with 4:31 to play that gave the Bears their only lead. The team was forced to lean on the kicker because Trubisky struggled in the red zone — and everywhere else.
In the first half, the Bears ran nine plays inside the Cardinals’ 20 — and totaled -2 yards. Jordan Howard punched in a 1-yard run in the third quarter, the only series in which the Bears passed the Cardinals’ 20 in the second half.
Trubisky played an ugly first 30 minutes, fumbling after holding the football like a suitcase on the Bears’ second drive. The next play, Bradford found David Johnson for a 21-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead. Late in the first half, he had a pass tipped by Chandler Jones and intercepted by Tre Boston.
“It’s an ugly, hard-fought battle on offense,” Trubisky said. “But we know if we just keep batting back, then the defense was going to shut them down and get the ball back for us.”
Trubisky went 24-for-35 for 220 yards, no touchdowns, an interception and a 73.5 passer rating. He was sacked three times.
Playing their second game in six days, the Bears’ offense was looking for marked improvement against a Cardinals team that had allowed 58 points over their first two contests.
They didn’t discover that in the desert. But they did get the win — and a spot atop their division.
“When you’ve got a defense that’s playing like that, the offense, I guess you can make a few mistakes,” receiver Taylor Gabriel said. “At the same time, it’s a new offense. We’re all learning and we’re trying to click. It’s Week 3 of a new offense, a new head coach.”