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Thursday, September 26, 2013
Ball-hawking Bears are quite a sight

By David Fleming
ESPN.com

Charles Tillman
Charles Tillman has two interceptions through the Bears' first three games of 2013.

Under relentless pressure from linebacker Lance Briggs late Sunday night in Pittsburgh, a battered Ben Roethlisberger was trying to collapse into the fetal position when the ball popped loose and -- for the NFL-best 54th time since the beginning of 2012 -- landed, magically, in the possession of the Chicago Bears defense.

This time, as if he had asked someone to toss him a cold one out of a cooler, the ball floated perfectly into the open right palm of defensive end Julius Peppers, who then shuffled 42 yards to the end zone to cap a trademark performance by the Bears' historic ball-hawking defense.

Since the beginning of 2012, in a league where one or two extra possessions can change a game, if not an entire season, the Bears have an NFL-best 55 takeaways. (A few moments after Peppers scored, Bears safety Chris Conte picked off Roethlisberger for Chicago's fifth turnover of the night.) The Bears, in fact, could have beaten the Steelers just on the points (24) they scored off turnovers alone. It also marked the fourth time the Bears scored multiple TDs on defense in their last 19 games. During that same span, the other 31 teams in the NFL have accomplished that feat 10 times -- total.

By Tuesday, the undefeated Bears had moved up to No. 4 in our Power Rankings. And, of course, when the experts began analyzing why Chicago is off to just its third 3-0 start during the last 20 seasons, predictably, we all focused on the same obvious conclusion.

Gotta be Jay Cutler and Marc Trestman, right?

In fact, when polled by ESPN Chicago, only 8 percent of fans credited the defense. Which means, if my math is correct, that roughly 92 percent of you guys are wrong.

Don't feel bad. Sometimes you just can't fully appreciate the true magnificence of something like the Bears' epic ball-hawking prowess unless the accomplishment is laid out in its entirety for one to absorb, like the contents of Floyd Mayweather's checking account or Agora, the massive, mesmerizing sculpture by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz that sits on the south end of Grant Park. (Or, Tom Brady's list of postseason touchdowns.)

So, once again as a public service, and in conjunction with the fine folks at ESPN Stats and Info, I've charted out for you, dear FlemFilers, the complete and entire annotated list of the Bears' last 55 takeaways. Enjoy.

2013

Week 3 -- Sept. 22: Bears 40, Steelers 23 at Heinz Field

Julius Peppers
Julius Peppers heads toward the end zone after recovering a Ben Roethlisberger fumble in Week 3.

55 -- Q4: Conte INTERCEPTS Roethlisberger.
• This pick put the Bears on pace for 59 turnovers in 2013. The NFL record is 66 set by the 1961 Chargers, although the Bears are the only team in the last decade to snag more than 40 turnovers in a single season.

54 -- Q4: Peppers FUMBLE RETURN FOR TD after Briggs' sack on Roethlisberger.
• Heading into the season, one of the big questions about the 2013 Bears defense was how Briggs would do as the unit's new playcaller. I'd say Briggs has exceeded all expectations and actually seems to be playing smarter and faster (if that's possible) because of the way his new duties force him to remain laser-focused at all times.

53 -- Q3: DT Henry Melton RECOVERS FUMBLE by Felix Jones.
• Melton, the team's franchise-tag player, was later lost for the season with an ACL tear. This is an extremely worrisome injury for the Bears. (Quick quiz: When can you tell an NFL head coach is lying? Answer: Whenever he utters the words "next man up.") For starters we all remember how the Bears started 7-1 in 2012 only to miss the playoffs after injuries and age took the bite out of the defense. What's more, the Bears' scheme, and all their takeaways, are predicated on getting pressure and disrupting quarterbacks with four or fewer pass-rushers, which then allows them extra defenders downfield who lurk on the edge of pass zones waiting to jump routes. One way you do that is by rotating in fresh pass-rushers. But the injury to Melton means, moving forward, the Bears lack the depth up front to pull that off.

52 -- Q2: FS Major Wright PICK-SIX on Roethlisberger.
• For his pick-six and forced fumble, Wright got his very first game ball.

51 -- Q1: OLB James Anderson RECOVERS FUMBLE by Roethlisberger after sack by D.J. Williams.

Week 2 -- Sept. 15: Bears 31, Vikings 30 at Soldier Field

50 -- Q4: OLB Blake Costanzo RECOVERS FUMBLE by John Carlson.

49 -- Q3: DE Corey Wootton RECOVERS FUMBLE by Adrian Peterson.
• Enjoy this while you can, Bears fans. Wootton, cornerback Charles Tillman, cornerback Tim Jennings, Wright and Melton could all be gone next year.

48 -- Q2: Jennings PICK-SIX on Christian Ponder.
• For all the genius talk about coach Marc Trestman, when it comes to the team's defense, maybe the smartest thing the new Bears coach did was nothing. After taking over for the fired Lovie Smith, not only did Trestman and new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker keep Smith's Cover 2 scheme intact, they kept all the same terminology and most of the same personnel -- with the exception of eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher and defensive end Israel Idonije.

Week 1 -- Sept. 8: Bears 24, Bengals 21 at Soldier Field

Tim Jennings
Tim Jennings' fumble recovery was one of three turnovers the Bears forced in their season-opening win against the Bengals.

47 -- Q4: Jennings RECOVERS FUMBLE by Mohamed Sanu.
• The Bears held the Bengals to 63 yards rushing in this game. It gets very little attention, but stopping the run and forcing teams to take shots down the field and put the ball up for grabs is the key to the Bears' ball-hawking bravado.

46 -- Q2: Tillman INTERCEPTS Andy Dalton.
• Tillman, 32, is one of the best cover corners in the league, and a key to the Bears' scheme -- when he's healthy. But by Week 4 he will be hobbled (again) by nagging injuries.

45 -- Q1: Tillman INTERCEPTS Dalton.
• Both of Tillman's picks came against Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Green. A member of a front office in the AFC told me that at crunch time Dalton and Green continue to run the same routes with the same "tells" that most opponents have begun to pick up on.

2012

Week 17 -- Dec. 20: Bears 26, Lions 24 at Ford Field

44 -- Q3: Wright RECOVERS FUMBLE by Matthew Stafford.

43 -- Q2: Jennings INTERCEPTS Stafford.
• This pass was intended for tight end Tony Scheffler. One of the many things you learn by charting out the Bears' 55 takeaways is just how often they target tight ends by jumping underneath routes of slower players knowing that in the Cover 2 they almost always have help over the top.

42 -- Q2: Peppers RECOVERS FUMBLE by Stafford after sack by Idonije.

41 -- Q1: WR Eric Weems RECOVERS FUMBLE by Joique Bell on kickoff.

Week 16 -- Dec. 23: Bears 28, Cardinals 13 at University of Phoenix Stadium

40 -- Q4: CB Kelvin Hayden INTERCEPTS Brian Hoyer.
• Hoyer, of course, a grad of St. Ignatius in Cleveland, is now the hometown savior of the Browns, unless he plays so well that the team decides to trade him for picks in next year's draft.

39 -- Q3: Tillman PICK-SIX on Ryan Lindley.
• With this pick, the Bears came within one defensive score of tying the NFL single-season record of 10.

38 -- Q1: DB Zack Bowman FUMBLE RETURN FOR TD on Beanie Wells carry.

Week 15 -- Dec. 16: Packers 21, Bears 13 at Soldier Field

37 -- Q4: S Anthony Walters RECOVERS FUMBLE by Randall Cobb on punt.
• So, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't come up with a complete list of all 55 turnovers by the Bears since the beginning of 2012. I looked everywhere. Play-by-plays. A special list created by ESPN Stats. Player bios. Until I finally found this beaut. It was hiding inside a turnover loophole: See, according to the play-by-play on a punt return, Cobb attempted a backward pass to a teammate that wasn't completed so he was charged with the fumble, not the guy who actually dropped it.

36 -- Q3: LB Nick Roach RECOVERS FUMBLE by Ryan Grant.
• This fumble was forced by Tillman, his 10th forced fumble of the season.

Week 14 -- Dec. 9: Vikings 21, Bears 14 at Mall of America Field

35 -- Q2: Wright INTERCEPTS Ponder.
• One of the secrets to all the Bears takeaways is how good the defenders are at reading a quarterback's eyes. What you'll see time and again on this list is the Bears abusing young passers (Ponder in particular), and that's because they tend to telegraph where they're going with the ball by nervously staring down their targets. Because the Bears play so much zone, the DBs typically have receivers in front of them and can keep one eye on a young quarterback's lying eyes.

Week 13 -- Dec. 2: Seahawks 23, Bears 17 at Soldier Field

34 -- Q1: Hayden RECOVERS FUMBLE by Marshawn Lynch.
• The Bears excel at forcing turnovers early in games. To give you an idea how devastating an early turnover is, this single play reduced the Seahawks' win probability by almost 10 percent.

Brian Urlacher
Brian Urlacher's interception against the Titans turned out the be the last takeaway of his career.

Week 12 -- Nov. 25: Bears 28, Vikings 10 at Soldier Field

33 -- Q4: Wright RECOVERS FUMBLE by Ponder.

32 -- Q2: Conte INTERCEPTS Ponder.
• It is not unusual to see the Bears' safeties more than 17 yards deep when the ball is snapped. This ensures that no one will ever get behind them on deep routes but, more importantly, that defenders underneath can jump routes knowing their backside is covered.

31 -- Q1: Tillman RECOVERS FUMBLE by Peterson.
• If Peterson has a weakness, it might be fumbles, especially against the Bears. Peterson drops the ball once every 65 carries. Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders put it on the ground once every 75.

Week 11 -- Nov. 19: 49ers 32, Bears 7 at Candlestick Park

This is the only game in the last two seasons that the Bears failed to snag a turnover and, accordingly, it was also their worst loss during that same stretch. The team, as you remember, went 3-5 down the stretch, missed the playoffs and fired Smith. So, while I think the Bears are off to a perfect start, remember this: Of the 52 teams to begin a season 7-1 since 1990 only two have failed to make the playoffs -- the 1996 Redskins and the 2012 Bears.

Week 10 -- Nov. 11: Texans 13, Bears 6 at Soldier Field

30 -- Q1: Jennings INTERCEPTS Matt Schaub.

29 -- Q1: Jennings INTERCEPTS Schaub.

Week 9 -- Nov. 4: Bears 51, Titans 20 at LP Field

Tony Romo
Tony Romo shows his frustration after throwing his fifth interception against the Bears in a 2012 game.

28 -- Q4: Hayden RECOVERS FUMBLE by Jared Cook.
• How much does the Bears' swarming defense rattle opponents? The Titans' mild-mannered QB Matt Hasselbeck was flagged for a horse-collar tackle at the end of this play.

27 -- Q2: Hayden RECOVERS FUMBLE by Chris Johnson.

26 -- Q1: Conte RECOVERS FUMBLE by Johnson.

25 -- Q1: Urlacher PICK-SIX on Hasselbeck.
• The Bears defense returned seven picks for TDs in its first eight games. The NFL record is nine, set by the 1961 Chargers. But injuries, age and having to defend a short field because of stupid, selfish throws by Cutler took away the defense's explosiveness. The Bears managed just 28 turnovers and one pick-six the rest of the season. Takeaways happen when all 11 defenders swarm to the ball and, well, as the season wears on the older defenders in Chicago tend to lose this ability rather dramatically.

24 -- Q1: Urlacher RECOVERS FUMBLE by Kenny Britt.
• With the retirement of Ray Lewis and Urlacher and the advent of so much nickel defense in the modern pass-happy era of the NFL, you could make the argument that the classic run-stuffing, thick-necked, snot-bubbling middle linebacker is slowly going extinct in much the same way as the running back.

Week 8 -- Oct. 28: Bears 23, Panthers 22 at Soldier Field

23 -- Q4: Jennings PICK-SIX on Cam Newton.

22 -- Q2: Jennings INTERCEPTS Newton.

Week 7 -- Oct. 22: Bears 13, Lions 7 at Soldier Field

21 -- Q4: CB D.J. Moore INTERCEPTS Stafford.
• If there is such a thing as a game-winning turnover, this game was full of them. This pick came on fourth-and-goal at the Chicago 3. In fact, five of the Bears' first 28 turnovers were inside their own 20. The Bears were not getting big leads and then sitting back in a deep zone playing center field and picking off Hail Marys to pad their stats. At its best, this defense attacks, disrupts and dominates using turnovers the way the 1985 Bears defense used physical intimidation.

20 -- Q3: Urlacher RECOVERS FUMBLE by Bell.
• This one came on second-and-goal at the Chicago 1.

19 -- Q3: Bowman RECOVERS FUMBLE by Stefan Logan on punt.

18 -- Q2: Peppers RECOVERS FUMBLE by Mikel Leshoure.
• This one came at the Chicago 18.

Week 6 -- BYE WEEK

Week 5 -- Oct. 7: Bears 41, Jaguars 3 at EverBank Field

17 -- Q4: Briggs PICK-SIX on Blaine Gabbert.

16 -- Q3: Tillman PICK-SIX on Gabbert

15 -- Q2: Peppers RECOVERS FUMBLE by Gabbert after sack by Wootton.
• The Bears lead the league with 26 fumble recoveries since the start of 2012.

Week 4 -- Oct. 1: Bears 34, Cowboys 18 at Cowboys Stadium

14 -- Q4: Wright INTERCEPTS Tony Romo.

13 -- Q4: Moore INTERCEPTS Romo.

12 -- Q3: Briggs PICK-SIX on Romo.
• Even after returning this pick 74 yards, the then-31-year-old Briggs still had enough energy left to dance his way into the end zone with his right hand extended over his head. "How about Lance Briggs?" laughed Lovie. "You guys didn't know he could run that fast."

11 -- Q3: Wright INTERCEPTS Romo.
• A signature of the Bears defense is the fact that it can get pressure on a quarterback with just four (or fewer) pass-rushers. After the first half, that's almost exclusively what the Bears did with their defensive front. After the first month of the season, they led the league with eight picks off of a four-man rush.

10 -- Q2: Tillman PICK-SIX on Romo.
• The last time Romo had thrown five picks in one game was during his first year as a starter. To add insult to injury, he was eventually relieved in the game by former Bears quarterback Kyle Orton.

Week 3 -- Sept. 23: Bears 23, Rams 6 at Soldier Field

9 -- Q4: Jennings INTERCEPTS Sam Bradford.

8 -- Q4: Wright PICK-SIX on Bradford.

Week 2 -- Sept. 13: Packers 23, Bears 10 at Lambeau Field

7 -- Q4: Jennings INTERCEPTS Aaron Rodgers.
• Certainly, this isn't the first time the Packers have been torched.

6 -- Q3: Tillman RECOVERS FUMBLE by Jermichael Finley.
• Finley has two fumbles in 209 receptions during his career -- and they're both against the Bears.

Week 1 -- Sept. 9: Bears 41, Colts 21 at Soldier Field

5 -- Q4: Jennings INTERCEPTS Andrew Luck.
• Jennings, by the way, has a vertical jump more than half his height.

4 -- Q3: Peppers RECOVERS FUMBLE after sack by Wootton.

3 -- Q3: Conte INTERCEPTS Luck.
• This pick in the end zone fulfilled the "three takeaways a game" quota that Smith originally imposed on his defense. It sounds like an impossible task, but the Bears actually hit that goal 11 times in their last 19 games.

2 -- Q3: Hayden RECOVERS FUMBLE by LaVon Brazill on kick return.

1 -- Q2: Jennings INTERCEPTS Luck.
• This was the first of five turnovers the Bears forced in the season opener. The Chicago defense also had three sacks and held the Colts to 63 yards on the ground. It was the beginning of an epic run by a new, modern ball-hawking hybrid of the Monsters of the Midway.

So, naturally, all the postgame coverage was about the same thing.

Jay Cutler.