Bears’ defense being aided by youth movement in the secondary
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Nickel back Bryce Callahan made the Bears’ first interception of the season Sunday against the Ravens and returned it 52 yards. But bigger and better things overshadowed it.
‘‘I’m not tripping,’’ Callahan said with a smile. ‘‘It’s not a big deal to me.’’
That’s because he’s part of a young secondary that was exceptional against the Ravens and has become a new source of optimism for the Bears.
In the Bears’ wild overtime victory against the Ravens, safety Adrian Amos topped Callahan’s pick with his own interception, which he returned 90 yards for a touchdown. And cornerback Kyle Fuller arguably was the Bears’ best defender, breaking up three passes.
It all had to be encouraging for the Bears’ brass to see, especially when considering the next steps in the rebuilding effort.
Three young players — Amos, 24; Fuller, 25; and Callahan, 26 — played crucial roles in the victory. And the youth movement looks even more promising because rookie safety Eddie Jackson, 24, might develop into the Bears’ best defensive back by the end of the season.
‘‘You’re talking about young players,’’ coach John Fox said. ‘‘And young players tend to improve as they go.’’
Handling Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, running back Christian McCaffrey and receivers Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin (if healthy) on Sunday at Soldier Field would be more impressive than beating the Ravens, though. It would be another indication the secondary truly has improved.
Overall, though, the secondary hasn’t been the weak link many thought it would be this season. Has the group been perfect? Absolutely not. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio would be the first to tell you that.
But the Bears’ defense wouldn’t rank sixth in total yards allowed, eighth in yards per play allowed or eighth in passing yards allowed without some strong play from the secondary.
‘‘I’ve been pleased or satisfied — or not overjoyed — but these guys have played well,’’ Fangio said. ‘‘And I see them getting better. I see Eddie Jackson getting better and better. I’ve been telling you guys where Kyle Fuller is right now, and that’s happening more and more. Adrian got off the schneid there, just in the nick of time, so hopefully that springboards him to playing even better. But we’ll see. It’s a week-to-week operation here.’’
Fangio also highlighted the play of cornerback Prince Amukamara, and cornerback Marcus Cooper should play more this week after being limited by a back injury. Amukamara, Cooper and safety Quintin Demps are free-agent additions who were signed to start this season.
But the optimism starts with the youth. Fuller, the Bears’ first-round pick in 2014, and Callahan, an undrafted free-agent signee in 2015, are playing themselves into new contracts. Will general manager Ryan Pace reward them? There are 10 games left in the regular season, but Pace does have a preference for homegrown players.
The Bears didn’t pick up Fuller’s fifth-year option after he missed all of last season in the wake of arthroscopic knee surgery in the preseason. But his health and improved relationship with Fangio have resulted in better play on the field. Everyone has taken notice.
‘‘We had one of our few first-round picks get healthy,’’ Fox said. ‘‘It helps to have those types of players.’’
If Amos’ first career interception becomes the ‘‘springboard’’ Fangio hopes, the starting spot Amos held his first two seasons would become his again.
The Bears want their young players to play, but they also want them to earn it. Fangio makes a concerted effort not to compliment any of them too much, but the young defensive backs are part of the reason he sees improvement in his defense.
‘‘To me, it’s just what your eyes tell you, not what stats tell you,’’ Fangio said. ‘‘I think we’re seeing some growth.’’
Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns.