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'HITS' principle fuels Bears' comeback victory

Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson forces a fumble during Sunday's game vs. the 49ers
Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson forces a fumble during Sunday's game vs. the 49ers

Heavy rain and standing water blurred the yard lines and numbers on the field, but one thing was crystal clear Sunday at soggy Soldier Field.

The "HITS" principle that coach Matt Eberflus has instilled this year was evident throughout the Bears' stirring 19-10 comeback win over the 49ers. It's an acronym that stands for "Hustle, Intensity, Takeaways and (playing) Smart."

"The guys did a nice job in training camp and all the way back seven months ago of laying the foundation. They laid the foundation of what we talk about, about playing hard and being intense, taking the ball away, and then playing some smart ball. And those guys did that. The coaches, the players, we have something to stand on."

The hustle and intensity was reflected in the perseverance and grit the Bears displayed in outscoring the 49ers 19-0 over the game's final 25:32 after San Francisco had taken a 10-0 third-quarter lead.

"Coach always says it's mental and physical stamina, who can play the longest, the hardest, and just play every play," said quarterback Justin Fields, who threw two second-half touchdown passes after a sluggish start. "I think we won this game with mental and physical stamina. I'm proud of the defense, proud of the O-line, just proud of everybody."

The offense failed to advance beyond its own 35 on its first five possessions of the game. But after picking up three first downs on a drive late in the first half, the Bears scored touchdowns on their first three possessions of the second half to turn a 10-0 deficit into a 19-10 lead.

Left guard Cody Whitehair revealed that the Bears made halftime adjustments "to fit our combinations a little bit better" and resolved to "finish a little better" in the second half.

"You could definitely tell we had the momentum coming in before the half and then we carried that over to start the second half," he said.

The fanatical emphasis Bears coaches place on generating takeaways paid dividends in two key situations Sunday. The 49ers opened the game by marching to the Chicago 16. But cornerback Jaylon Johnson thwarted the threat by punching the ball out of the hands of Deebo Samuel on a sweep, and safety Jaquan Brisker recovered the fumble.

"That was great," Eberflus said. "They were on a drive. They had some momentum and we stopped it with that. And that happens. I can go back to countless examples where the guys get in the red zone, and you just hang in there. If you just hang in there on defense and you keep pounding the rock, good things will happen and that's what happened.

"Jaylon punched it and then Brisker recovered it. It was an outstanding play. And that happens a lot of times on the perimeter. The ball comes off the body and you get a punch out."

The defense took the ball away a second time at a crucial moment early in the fourth quarter. With the Bears protecting a 13-10 lead and the 49ers at their own 41, Eddie Jackson broke across the middle and intercepted a Trey Lance pass. The veteran safety returned the pick 26 yards, setting up a touchdown that gave the Bears a two-score lead.

"I feel like [the HITS principle] won us the game," Johnson said. "We had some turnovers, started off with the punchout, first turnover, and then Eddie's pick and really just keep finishing, keep going at them, keep attacking. I really feel that's what got us the game. Just keep wearing on them, keep going and they ended up breaking down."

The Bears also played smart. They drew just three penalties for 24 yards, with 15 of those yards coming on a bizarre unsportsmanlike infraction against rookie holder Trenton Gill for using a towel to help clear a spot on the flooded field for a field-goal attempt.

The Bears offense did not commit a penalty in the entire game, while the defense was assessed one for five yards.

The 49ers, on the other hand, drew 12 penalties for 99 yards, including two unnecessary roughness flags for late hits on a sliding Fields.

All three of the Bears' touchdown drives were sustained by San Francisco penalties. David Montgomery was stopped for no gain on third-and-5, but a facemask foul gave the Bears a first down and they capped the possession with Fields' 51-yard TD pass to Dante Pettis.

Fields later scrambled for five yards on third-and-9. But a defensive holding penalty gave the Bears an automatic first down and Fields followed with an 18-yard TD pass to Equanimeous St. Brown.

Khalil Herbert gained five yards on second-and-11 from the 49ers' 12, which would have set up a key third-and-6 play at the 7. But a defensive holding penalty gave the Bears a first down at the 3, and two plays later Herbert dashed in for a 3-yard TD run.

"Like we said from the onset, we were going to play smart, aggressive football," Eberflus said. "So you can still hit and do the things and play aggressive and finish plays and do it the right way, but you do it the smart, aggressive way.

"If you go over the line—you see that where it's just like hitting after the whistle, hitting quarterbacks out of bounds, all those types of things that beat you—you beat yourself that way, and we just don't want to do that. We show guys the ramifications of that, how it hurts you as a football team field position-wise keeps drives alive.

"And we had that. We had a couple sustained drives through penalties that we got, which I thought was really good."