Why was Bears defense successful against Bengals? It starts with corners, pash rush
Depending on how you look at it, Sunday's victory over Cincinnati could qualify as a solid win or narrow escape for the Bears.
It was definitely one they needed, since the Bengals and New York Giants late in the year rank as the Bears' most winnable non-division games. Not many of those on the schedule.
Anyway, let's check the film and figure out how the Bears defense went from docile in Week 1 to dominant.
Safeties last: Maybe the most important play of Sunday's game was the turnover where Eddie Jackson stripped the ball from Bengals WR Tee Higgins and fellow safety Tashaun Gipson recovered the fumble. Big plays from Bears safeties have been missing for the last 10, 20, 30 or so games, but this defensive performance wasn't about the safeties.
Typically, these film studies discover creative ways used by an opponent to pick on the Bears' nickel back and linebackers in pass coverage. Bengals QB Joe Burrow actually tried attacking the corners for a change.
They held up well. Jaylon Johnson had a great game and Kindle Vildor was mostly good, although he did give up both Bengals touchdowns late in the game. Through two weeks, Johnson leads the league with 5 passes defensed and he's the highest-rated cornerback by Pro Football Focus. Needless to say, that's a great sign.
Those Johnson targets probably won't continue, though. Starting Sunday in Cleveland, nickel back Duke Shelley figures to see plenty of action as teams seek more advantageous matchups.
The other heroes of the defense were the pass rushers. Akiem Hicks again showed he's the most important player on the defense. He had an active game and caused plenty of havoc, even without registering many stats.
Pressure up front was a factor in all three Burrow interceptions. On the Roquan Smith pick-six, Hicks and Bilal Nichols got pressure up the middle, forcing Burrow to make a quick throw. It looked like intended receiver Tyler Boyd was trying to get deep enough behind the linebackers to create a throwing lane, while Burrow was hoping Boyd would turn around just after the first-down line and didn't have time to wait.
On Johnson's interception, Nichols got loose while looping to the outside, forcing Burrow to make a quick throw. Then obviously, the third pick was deflected by LB Alec Ogletree, but that was partially due to Hicks pushing a double-team into Burrow's lap. The Bengals had RB Joe Mixon left to block Ogletree and he didn't get it done.
The Bears also ran a couple of nice stunts to record sacks. Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn lined up next to each other and Quinn looped around Mack to find a clear path. On the next sack, Mack curled around Hicks.
Best play: In a 3-point game, there are going to be plenty of potential turning points. Allen Robinson made a clutch move late in the third quarter by eluding Bengals CB Chidobe Awuzie on the sideline and converting a third-and-12. If Robinson had been pushed out of bounds when he caught the ball, the Bears would have had to choose between going for it on fourth-and-seven or trying a 53-yard field goal.
Worst play: This one should have been the best, the short throw to David Montgomery in the first quarter where he juked LB Germaine Pratt and shook loose for a 37-yard gain. Somehow, though, a roughing-the-passer penalty against Andy Dalton and a hold 25 yards downfield on Marquise Goodwin ended up nullifying the play. Without the hold, the Bears would have had a first down at the 13-yard line with a chance to go up 14-0.
Unsung heroes: The Bears have been short-handed on the defensive line with Eddie Goldman hurt and Mario Edwards suspended. Nichols is playing a lot and newcomer Angelo Blackson has fared well at nose guard. Blackson, a seventh-year pro who was on the Cardinals last year, got his first career interception.
Quick hitters: The offensive line was decent and veteran tackle Jason Peters was much better in his second game with the Bears. Of course, there are no Aaron Donalds on the Bengals, but that goes for every team left on the Bears' schedule. ... An often forgotten tool in the Bears offense is crossing patterns, so it was nice to see them hit two on the game's opening drive, a 17-yarder to Darnell Mooney and the touchdown to Robinson.