It’s amazing what leading the league in interceptions can do for the perception of a secondary.
Last year when the Bears had a top-10 defense, their secondary got little credit. That was partly because, for the third straight season, the Bears had a franchise-record-low eight interceptions. This year, in just nine games, the Bears have an NFL-best 16 interceptions, and 12 of them have come from six different defensive backs.
The secondary is no longer the weak link of the defense, which has ascended to the top five in most major categories, ironically, due in large part to those same DBs who have caught more flak than interceptions the past couple years.
“They’re getting more credit because we’ve gotten more interception, so that’s obviously the main reason,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “But overall, we’ve been defending the pass better, and we’ve come up with some balls in the takeaway department.”
In addition to the 16 picks, the Bears are No. 3 in yards allowed per pass play. CB Kyle Fuller leads the way with four interceptions, while S Eddie Jackson, CB Prince Amukamara and nickel CB Bryce Callahan each have two. S Adrian Amos and dime CB Sherrick McManis each have one interception. Amukamara has one of the Bears’ three pick-6s, while Jackson has a 65-yard fumble return for a touchdown.
So, it’s not just making plays on the ball, it’s doing something with it, and it’s clearly a group effort, with everyone making significant contributions.
“The fact that we’re making more plays on the ball (is why) we’re starting to get a little more noticed,” Amukamara said. “That’s the difference between last year and this year, and it’s not just one guy doing it. It’s spread throughout the group, which is also a great thing.”
Taking advantage of opportunities has a lot to do with the Bears’ surge in interceptions, but it’s much more than just players catching the balls that hit them in the hands.
“The saying around the league is, ‘If you catch the ones they throw to you, you’ll lead the league in interceptions,’ ” Amukamara said. “But I credit it to our coaches, too. “They do a great job of giving us (keys) to look at, and to be honest, guys are just flying around to the ball. You see Amos’ pick against the Bills, and then you see me jumping that route against the Seahawks, and Eddie jumping that route against Tampa. That’s just from (watching) film. So I would say our preparation has been great.”
But it’s more than that, according to Fangio, and having a front seven that ranks No. 6 in sack percentage helps create more opportunities to take advantage of hurried or inaccurate throws.
“There’s a bunch of little things,” Fangio said. “Obviously, catching your opportunities is one, but it’s being in better position, being in tighter coverage, and maybe having a little better rush around you all plays into it.”
Aside from the interceptions, Amos is third on the team with 41 tackles, followed immediately by Callahan (37), Jackson (35) and Amukamara (32). Fuller is eighth on the hit list with 27, and he leads the team with 10 pass breakups, while Callahan is next with six, in addition to two sacks in limited opportunities.
In Callahan’s fourth year, the former undrafted free agent out of Rice has become increasingly adept at the nuanced role of playing in the slot.
“There are a lot of little things that he’s mastered,” Fangio said. “And he can go to the next level as far as reading and dissecting routes and knowing how to play them, maybe playing them a half-second quicker than he did two years ago. Those things start to add up.”
So does the work of the secondary. The Bears lead the NFL with 89 points off those 24 takeaways, which are the second most in the league.