Matt Eberflus’ H.I.T.S. principle an ‘eye-opener’ for Bears

It might have come across as hokey when Eberflus introduced it — what football coach doesn’t want his team to hustle and play with intensity? But as Bears fans saw with Lovie Smith nearly two decades ago, it’s the obsession with it that can make a difference.

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The Bears scored a touchdown on special teams against the Seahawks last week when Elijah Hicks (not pictured) recovered a muffed punt in the end zone to give the Bears a 17-0 halftime lead.

Bears cornerback Davontae Harris (16) reaches for a muffed punt that eventually was recovered by teammate Elijah Hicks for a touchdown against the Seahawks last week.

Caean Couto, AP Photos

For Bears center Sam Mustipher, the H.I.T.S. principle that emphasizes hustle, intensity and playing smart should have been the easiest part of the transition from Matt Nagy to Matt Eberflus.

Mustipher has been living the H.I.T.S. principle most of his football career. It’s how he became a starter at Notre Dame after playing on the scout team as a freshman. It’s how he became a starter in the NFL after being on the practice squad as an undrafted free agent as a rookie. He’s the embodiment of the H.I.T.S. principle.

Or so he thought. It took only one preseason game for Mustipher to realize that his idea of the H.I.T.S. principle and Eberflus’ idea of the H.I.T.S. principle were two different things.

“It was an eye-opener for me after that Kansas City game, getting your grade sheet,” Mustipher said. “I’m a guy who prides myself on going to pick up the ballcarrier, but I had loafs on the sheet. That’s something I’m not used to.

“I went back throughout the week, like, ‘Shoot, I’ve got to practice harder.’ Because if you don’t practice hard, you’re not going to be able to do it in the game.’’

Mustipher’s story — embracing the H.I.T.S. principle — has been arguably the most prevalent theme of Eberflus’ first season as the Bears’ head coach. Players who thought they were hustlers are learning there’s another level of hustle that can make a difference. Players who thought they were above the H.I.T.S. principle — or just ignored it — learned the hard way that it matters.

“I didn’t buy in right away,” third-year cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. “It was something I wasn’t familiar with, something I wasn’t used to doing. So naturally there’s going to be some back-and-forth.”

Right around the time Johnson was working with the second team in OTAs, the importance of the H.I.T.S. principle seemed to kick in for Johnson.

“Coming in, being in it, going through it in the spring — and now it’s like second nature,” Johnson said. “It’s the standard, and, as a leader, I have to push myself to push other guys, to uphold that standard. I’m definitely used to it now. It’s natural. It’s what the expectation is.”

Eberflus’ H.I.T.S. principle might have come across as hokey and collegiate when he explained it upon being hired. What football coach doesn’t want his team to hustle and play with intensity? What football coach doesn’t put an emphasis on takeaways and taking care of the ball? What football coach doesn’t want his team to play smart?

But as Bears fans saw with Lovie Smith nearly two decades ago, it’s the emphasis that can make a difference. As expected, there’s not a lot of quantifiable progress with the Bears after OTAs, minicamps, training camp and two preseason games. But the impact and infectious nature of Eberflus’ H.I.T.S. principle seem to show up more and more every time the Bears step on the field. Smith’s best defenses were the same way — he just didn’t have an acronym to promote it.

And there’s a trick to instilling that mentality — otherwise every defense in the NFL would be playing like a pack of hungry wolves.

“You’ve got to be fanatical and relentless about it,” defensive line coach Travis Smith said. “And it’s not for everyone. It’s not easy. It’s hustle, intensity, takeaways and playing smart. But it’s not just some of the time. It’s all the time. It’s not just in games. If you don’t do it in practice, you’re not going to do it in games.”

You can already see the effect of the H.I.T.S. principle in practice, but the true test will be in the regular season. If there’s one quantifiable impact, it’s with takeaways. Swarming to the ball and aggression lead to tipped passes that turn into interceptions and hustling players around the ball, ready to pounce on opportunity.

We’ll see if it makes a difference. The Bears were tied for 26th in the NFL in takeaways last season with 16. Eberflus’ Colts were second with 33.

So far, Eberflus can’t argue with the buy-in. That he got through to Johnson is a good sign. He’s a believer.

“It’s funny because we joke around with it,” Johnson said when asked how the coaching staff sells players on the H.I.T.S. principle. “One of our quotes we said Shakespeare came up with is, ‘Thou who runneth the ball, good things shall happen.’

“[It’s] just really seeing the bright side of running. It’s not just, ‘You guys just run to the ball just because we say [it].’ [There’s] some rhyme and reason to why we do it. And once we see good things happen from running to the ball, it gives us more confidence to push ourselves to really run to the ball because you never really know what could happen.”

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