INDIANAPOLIS — Linebacker James Vaughters plays in the shadow of Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd and behind Isaiah Irving, Aaron Lynch and Kylie Fitts on the fringe of the Bears’ roster.
But he’s doing what every long shot knows he has to do: make big plays.
For the third consecutive preseason game, Vaughters put a big play on tape for his coaches and the rest of the league to see. His strip-sack of Phillip Walker led to Joel Iyiegbuniwe’s 22-yard fumble return for a touchdown that gave the Bears the lead in a 27-17 preseason victory Saturday night against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Previously, Vaughters, 26, who played the last three seasons in the CFL, recovered a fumble against the Panthers and had another strip-sack against the Giants.
“Nick Williams in the pregame speech said that’s the name of the game — making plays,” Vaughters said. “I’m just glad that those opportunities are presenting themselves, and I’m able to take advantage of them.”
It was reserves against reserves, but the Bears’ backups who play behind arguably the best defense in the NFL acquitted themselves well. Safety Deon Bush scored on a 91-yard interception return. Iyiegbuniwe had a sack to go with his touchdown. Nick Kwiatkoski had a sack and also a hand in prying the ball loose from Colts rookie tight end Hale Hentges to set up Bush’s return. And linebacker Josh Woods, defensive tackle Abdullah Anderson and Williams had sacks.
“It’s awesome,” Bears Pro Bowl defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “That’s what these games are for — to build your roster, build your team. You’re looking for guys that pop off the tape, that are explosive and make big-time plays. Like Vaughters’ strip-sack, Iggy just obliterating the back to get the sack.
“You’ve got guys fighting to show themselves in the best light they can. We see it in practice, but it’s nice for them to show the entire league because there are 31 other teams, and we can’t keep every guy. It’s awesome to see these guys put their best football on tape.”
Iyiegbuniwe was rewarded for having the presence of mind to pick up the loose ball after Vaughters’ strip-sack, even when he was unsure it was a fumble.
“I didn’t know for sure [if it was a fumble], but we’re always taught to pick up the ball — we did it all through training camp,” Iyiegbuniwe said. “I didn’t hear a whistle. I should have picked it up and sprinted in there. But I got into the end zone. My first [touchdown] since high school. It was great, man.”
Though the preseason has been a showcase for backups, it still means something to make plays.
“Those are the plays we’re looking for,” coach Matt Nagy said. “When you have a chance to make plays, you make plays. And some guys did that. You felt it. All that does is make the decisions tougher on us, and that’s what we want.”