The gain was short but the message went deep. Rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller was going to have another long day against another top-tier receiver — this time the Dallas Cowboys’ always volatile Dez Bryant.
On the Cowboys’ fifth play from scrimmage at Soldier Field on Thursday night, Bryant violently stiff-armed Fuller — literally slapping him to the ground — before being shoved out of bounds by linebacker Jon Bostic for a four-yard gain. Fuller took exception and grabbed at Bryant, who ignored him, before an official stepped in.
Replays of Bryant’s brute force have gone viral — a far cry from Fuller’s early success after he trended nationally on Twitter for his two interceptions in Week 2 against the San Francisco 49ers.
“This is the game of football,” said Fuller, the 14th overall pick in 2014. “You got to go out there and perform. You can have all the accolades you want, but it doesn’t mean anything.”
It’s all part of a hard fall back to earth for Fuller after he was named the NFC rookie of the month for September and his shutdown efforts in October against Carolina Panthers rookie Kelvin Benjamin and the Atlanta Falcons’ duo of Julio Jones and Roddy White.
Bryant and Detroit Lions star Calvin Johnson have made Fuller look every bit like the injury-plagued rookie that he currently is over the past two weeks.
“They’re similar,” Fuller said. “Just overall good receivers.”
According to Pro Football Focus’ reviews, Johnson had nine catches on 13 targets against Fuller, who shadowed him most of the game, for 113 yards and two touchdowns.
Fuller fared better against Bryant, who had five catches on six targets for 66 yards against him in PFF’s reviews. Still, Bryant’s early stiff-arm and his 43-yard leaping catch over Fuller and safety Chris Conte down to the Bears’ 13-yard line in the third quarter stand out.
Fuller fell hard on Bryant’s long catch and was soon replaced by undrafted rookie Al Louis-Jean. With Fuller watching, Louis-Jean was beaten for a touchdown by tight end Gavin Escobar just two plays after he left.
“We didn’t pull him out of the game for any [benching] reason,” coach Marc Trestman said. “When he got pushed down, he hurt himself just a little bit and we just gave him the opportunity to rest.”
This can all be good for Fuller, who has played through a broken hand since Week 7 and has dealt with hip pointer and right knee injuries. And Fuller, who also has struggled against Green Bay Packers receiver Jordy Nelson this season, seems to grasp that.
Fuller doesn’t seem to be overly frustrated by his recent problems. In his own quiet way, Fuller has actually talked at length about how his failures can be good learning experiences for him.
If Fuller’s going to be a defensive mainstay for the Bears for years, that’s a perfect mindset to have, especially with experience being the only thing Fuller can gain now from this disastrous season. Fuller is one of several first- or second-year players who will play at length for the Bears’ defense over the final three weeks.
“[You] go back to work,” Fuller said.
The Bears definitely aren’t concerned by Fuller’s recent problems. Trestman made sure to note the compliments that Bryant paid Fuller after the game.
“I don’t think there’s a concern with Kyle’s confidence at all,” Trestman said. “He’s getting tested each and every week by some of the best players in the league.
“As Dez Bryant said after the game, he’s a guy you’ve got to get ready to play and you highly respect. I think that says a lot about what the league and what a great player like Dez Bryant thinks of him.”