Montez Sweat, Bears defense establishing identity

Tremaine Edmunds (49) had one of four interceptions Monday night against the Vikings' Joshua Dobbs. AP Photo/Duane Burleson

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The formula for earning their first NFC North win in more than 700 days, a 12-10 defeat of the Minnesota Vikings on Monday, boiled down to a simple concept for Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson.

"If they don't score, they don't win," Johnson said. "We never flinched."

Aside from a fourth quarter touchdown, the Bears defense kept Minnesota out of the end zone in arguably its best performance of the season. Johnson was one of four Chicago defenders to intercept Vikings quarterback Joshua Dobbs. It was the second in as many games for the fourth-year cornerback, who is headed towards free agency in 2024. The Bears picked off Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff three times in a 31-26 loss at Detroit one week prior.

The defense struggled throughout the first half of the season to create turnovers. A struggling pass rush and injuries in the secondary allowed opposing quarterbacks time to find open receivers in blowout losses to the Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers.

But after totaling six interceptions in the first 10 weeks of the season, Chicago's 13 ranks third in the NFL.

The breakthrough began to take shape in a 16-13 win over the Carolina Panthers in Week 9. Defensive backs Tyrique Stevenson, Kyler Gordon, Jaquan Brisker and linebacker Jack Sanborn each broke up a pass, and Stevenson and Sanborn nearly came away with interceptions.

Two weeks later, and for the first time since 2006, the Bears had four takeaways in consecutive games. Those seven interceptions against Detroit and Minnesota are tied for their most in a two-game span in the last 30 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"We came out after last week [in Detroit], and we wanted to do the same thing," safety Eddie Jackson said. "... We wanted to go four quarters."

For the 4-8 Bears, the challenge after their Week 13 bye will be turning those takeaways into points. The Bears only generated three points off four turnovers in Minnesota.

After quarterback Justin Fields' second fumble, Chicago forced Minnesota to go three-and-out and gave the ball back to the offense with 2:29 to play.

Fields orchestrated a 10-play, 66-yard drive to get his team in position for a 30-yard field goal from kicker Cairo Santos, who was responsible for all of the Bears' points Monday.

Capitalizing off turnovers is critical to determine the growth of the team over the next five games. But Eberflus took it one step further. Those extra possessions forced by the defense, particularly Johnson's interception, can be better.

"The interception should have been a great return, and we've got to really do a good job," Eberflus said. "... Jaylon has just got to take that thing right up the sideline there. ... So that's No. 1. And we should have had it in a better position for our offense."

The defensive improvements are showing up everywhere, from an aggressive secondary to a pass rush that once was a weak spot. Eberflus credited the addition of Montez Sweat before the Oct. 31 trade deadline for allowing the Bears to get more creative with the alignments and stunts they're able to utilize along the defensive line. A pick stunt that aligned Sweat and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue on the same side led to an easy sack of Dobbs by the former Washington edge rusher.

It took weeks for the Bears to be able to claim their defensive identity. Building upon the growth displayed over the last two weeks when they return to action against Detroit on Dec. 10 is the goal.

"Defense creates momentum in a lot of different ways," Eberflus said. "They do it through third down stops, they do it through big hits and they do it through taking the ball away. That's what we always preach to the guys, and they did all three things [against Minnesota]."

It's also helped Eberflus re-establish his identity as a defensive-minded coach. Eberflus' future has been a topic of speculation -- Monday's win was his first against an NFC North foe -- but the former Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator has that side of the ball playing at a level above their record.