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Bears’ defense wins in workmanlike fashion

Showing glimpses of their 2018 bite, the Bears’ had three takeaways and four sacks Sunday — but red-zone and goal-to-go stinginess made the difference in a 23-16 victory over the Panthers.

Bears safety DeAndre Houston-Carson (36) celebrates with teammate Eddie Jackson (39) after Houston-Carson’s interception with 1:28 to play that clinched the Bears’ 23-16 victory over the Panthers on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
Bears safety DeAndre Houston-Carson (36) celebrates with teammate Eddie Jackson (39) after Houston-Carson’s interception with 1:28 to play that clinched the Bears’ 23-16 victory over the Panthers on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Bears safety Tashaun Gipson had one regret Sunday. When he intercepted Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on the third play from scrimmage, he didn’t get into the end zone.

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to score. I’m going to have to hear about it,” said Gipson, who picked off the pass that had been deflected by cornerback Jaylon Johnson at the Panthers’ 16-yard line and was pushed out of bounds by Mike -Davis at the 7. “But I’ve got to make the running back miss.”

Gipson’s interception typified a productive day for Chuck Pagano’s defense that still left a proud unit a little unfulfilled in a 23-16 victory at Bank of America Stadium.

The Bears had three takeaways and four sacks and held the Panthers to 303 yards and 4.9 yards per play. But they also had eight penalties for 70 yards, including a pass-interference infraction on Kyle Fuller that nullified safety Eddie Jackson’s 17-yard pick-six and a 33-yard pass-interference call on Johnson that set up the Panthers’ lone touchdown.

Unable to deliver a knockout blow, they were happy to win on points. The Panthers had two possessions in the final 5:12 with a chance to tie or take the lead and never got closer than the Bears’ 49-yard line, with reserve safety DeAndre Houston-Carson applying the finishing touch with an interception at the Panthers’ 35 with 1:28 left. It was the second consecutive game Houston-Carson made the clinching play.

“We did play well, but there’s always room for improvement,” said linebacker Roquan Smith, who had a team-high 12 tackles, including one tackle for loss. “So we’re just taking each week and enjoying it today, and we’re focused on our little improvement. It was a solid performance, but we can always get better.”

The defense did the little things well and made the most of missed opportunities. After nose tackle Bilal Nichols just missed a safety when he sacked Bridgewater on the second play from scrimmage, Gipson followed with his interception that set up the offense for a touchdown drive that, however grindy, gave the Bears a 7-0 lead.

When Akiem Hicks of all people was goaded into a neutral-zone infraction on fourth-and-two at the Bears’ 5-yard line in the second quarter for a first-and-goal at the 3, the Bears rallied and still held the Panthers to a field goal.

Jackson and John Jenkins stopped Davis for no gain. Fuller stopped Bridgewater with a textbook one-on-one, open-field tackle at the 2. And Smith’s blitz forced Bridgewater to throw awkwardly off his back foot for an incompletion in the end zone on third-and goal.

The Bears came in leading the NFL in red-zone defense (allowing touchdowns on 36.8% of opponents’ red-zone possessions) and that’s what made the difference Sunday. The Panthers scored one touchdown in three goal-to-goal situations.

“We were focused on not letting guys in [the end zone],” Smith said. “They’re an NFL team just like we are — a lot of good players — and it was just about being a brick wall.”

The Bears had 11 players contribute to an impact play — not just Khalil Mack (sack), Hicks (fumble recovery, TFL) and Jackson (forced fumble), but defensive end -Mario Edwards (two pressures and a sack on one series), Johnson, Gipson, Nichols, outside linebackers Barkevious Mingo (half-sack) and James Vaughters (half-sack) and the closer, Houston-Carson.

“I’m really proud of him — what a role player for us,” coach Matt Nagy said of Houston-Carson, a fifth-year player who has contributed mostly on special teams. “He’s just a quiet leader that does things the right way. He’s come up big in these situations, and that’s what I like about him.”