The Chicago Bears defense had to navigate around buzzkills in the second half of Sunday’s 23-16 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
It didn’t even have a full play to enjoy safety Eddie Jackson’s forced fumble and Akiem Hicks' recovery in the third quarter before Bears quarterback Nick Foles gave the ball back to the Panthers by throwing what he called “a dumb interception.”
The defense had mere seconds to celebrate Jackson’s pick-six one play later in the third before it was wiped out by a Kyle Fuller pass interference penalty.
“A punch in the stomach,” Tashaun Gipson said of the call.
Fifteen seconds came off the game clock between the Bears making what should have been the winning defensive stop and the Bears offense going three-and-out, allowing the Panthers one more chance to tie the game or win it late.
And yet time and again — down to DeAndre Houston-Carson’s first career interception in the final two minutes — the Bears defense popped back into place to come up with winning plays. If last week’s victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tom Brady on national TV was the defense’s breakout game, this one furthered its drive to be an elite unit, all while being given plenty of excuses to fold.
Bears coach Matt Nagy called the performance “lights out.”
“They flipped the field for the offense, and just as a unit on defense it was a fun one,” Nagy said. “I complimented them to the very end there in that locker room.”
The Bears forced three Panthers turnovers, including interceptions on Carolina’s first and final drives. They sacked quarterback Teddy Bridgewater four times for a loss of 25 yards. And they allowed the Panthers to score only one touchdown on three trips to the red zone.
Gipson started the Bears on the right foot after rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson broke up Bridgewater’s pass intended for Robby Anderson. Gipson grabbed the ball out of the air and returned it to the Panthers' 7-yard line. The Bears scored on Foles' 9-yard touchdown pass to Cole Kmet three plays later.
“We were able to get them behind the sticks, so we knew that it was going to be all stick routes on the first-down marker and Jaylon went to make a break,” Gipson said. “I was just playing football, reading Teddy. My man sat down, so I got my eyes to where he was going. He threw it to Jaylon, man. Jaylon couldn’t make the pick, made the play on the ball. Sometimes that ball just falls in the right places at the right time. And running to the ball, good things happen.”
The Bears entered the game as the best red-zone defense in the NFL, allowing a touchdown on 36.8% of opponents' trips inside the 20-yard-line. They lived up to that reputation Sunday.
The Bears forced first-half field goals after the Panthers got to first-and-goal at the 7-yard line and first-and-goal at the 3, the latter thanks in part to a big Fuller tackle of Bridgewater on second down and Roquan Smith’s pressure on Bridgewater on third down.
“It was just more so about being a brick wall,” Smith said. “It’s not letting the guys in and forcing them to a field goal. So that was our main thing. And then we’ve been pretty solid in that area.”
After the bizarre three-play sequence of events — in which Jackson forced Mike Davis to fumble, Southern Illinois product Jeremy Chinn intercepted Foles and Jackson’s pick-six was called back because of Fuller’s penalty — the defense came up with another stop. It forced kicker Joey Slye to attempt a 54-yard field goal, and he missed wide right.
“I don’t think that I’ve ever been a part of something like so many mood swings in a matter of five minutes,” Gipson said. “That was one of the craziest sequences that I’ve been a part of in my nine years.”
It might have been hard to blame the defense for folding after it stopped the Panthers on downs at the 38-yard line with 1 minute, 55 seconds to play and the offense did nothing to secure the win. The Bears three plays took 15 seconds off the clock before Pat O’Donnell punted.
But on the next play, Houston-Carson, a 2016 sixth-round draft pick who is in his fifth season with the Bears mostly as a backup and special teams player, came up with a huge pick to seal it. It was his second game-sealing play in as many games, as he also broke up Brady’s fourth-down pass to end the Buccaneers' chances in Week 5.
“I’m really proud of him,” Nagy said. “What a role player for us on this team. On defense, special teams, he’s just a quiet leader that does things the right way. He’s come up so big in these situations, and that’s what it’s all about.”
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