Since OTAs in the spring, Akiem Hicks has wanted the Bears defense to be described by a single word: Ferocious. The defensive end knew then how good he and his teammates could be, and it was only a matter of time before opponents learned it too.
On Sunday, the rest of the NFL was officially put on notice that the Chicago defense is a dominating unit. For the second consecutive week, the Bears kept the opposition out of the end zone and scored points of their own, as Chicago defeated the Panthers, 17-3. In the past eight quarters, Chicago's defense has scored three touchdowns while allowing none, as every level of the unit has stepped up and played like the aggressive bunch Hicks has seen coming for months.
"Just get after everybody, have them scared to play us. That's what we want," Hicks said following the dominating performance against the Panthers. Chicago finished with five sacks and three takeaways, while holding Carolina to 4.2 yards per play. Two of those takeaways were returned for touchdowns, both by rookie safety Eddie Jackson. The performance showcased the unit's ability to step up and make game-changing plays while not forgetting about their basic responsibilities as a defense.
Both of Jackson's scores came as a result of all-around team defense. The first came on Carolina's opening drive, with the Panthers facing a first-and-10 from the Chicago 24-yard line. The Panthers ran a triple-option, with quarterback Cam Newton faking a handoff to Christian McCaffery before rolling out and pitching it to receiver Curtis Samuel. Linebacker Pernell McPhee read the play the whole way, staying home on the runner before charging Samuel as the pitch was heading his way, causing the receiver to take his eyes off the ball and fumble. Several Bears tried to pounce on it before Jackson capitalized, picking up the loose ball and taking it 75 yards untouched for the score.
A quarter later, the rookie did it again. On a third down from the Chicago 33-yard line, Newton looked to hit Kelvin Benjamin on a crossing route. Cornerback Prince Amukamara had perfect coverage, deflecting the pass high in the air. Once again, Jackson was in the right place at the right time, sprinting in and intercepting the ball before Benjamin could haul it back. This time from 76 yards away, Jackson weaved his way back to the end zone, juking past Newton in the process.
With the pick-six, Jackson became the first player in NFL history with two defensive touchdowns of 75 or more yards in a game, the first Bear with two defensive touchdowns in a game since Fred Evans in 1948, and the first NFL player with both a fumble and interception return touchdown in the same game since the Chargers' Antonio Cromartie did it in 2007.
There was also a sentimental impact to Jackson's big plays. On October 22, 2016, Jackson broke his leg during a game as a player at the University of Alabama. Exactly a year later, he ran his way into the NFL record books.
"I've been through a lot of stuff in my life so that was just a little minor stepping stone," Jackson said. "The guys up front, they did a great job putting pressure on the quarterback and forcing mistakes on him."
Jackson's teammates weren't surprised at his historic day. They've seen him making big-time plays in practice since he came to Chicago as a fourth-round draft choice in April.
"He's going to be special, that's a special kid," McPhee said. "Our whole secondary is special, and we're getting an opportunity to show the world. We just got to stay focused and get ready for the next game."
There was more to the defensive performance than just the return touchdowns. Newton was under pressure all game long, as the Bears finished with 11 hits on the quarterback. They also limited the Panthers to just 3.6 yards per rush, forcing Carolina's offense to become one-dimensional in the second half. The Panthers' only points came on a second-quarter field goal, making it three straight games the Bears have allowed three or fewer points in the first half.
After halftime, Carolina twice had drives of eight or more plays that took the ball inside the Chicago 40, but both times were denied coming away with points. The big stop came in the third quarter, when the Panthers went for it on a 4th-and-2, opting to run a quarterback draw with Newton. The Bears read the play the entire way, as Eddie Goldman stuffed the gap and stopped Newton a yard short of the chains.
Despite being on the field for more than 38 minutes, the Bears didn't wear down. Instead they tired out their opponents. On Carolina's final three drives, the Panthers had a total of nine plays for six yards and an interception, as linebacker Danny Trevathan grabbed Chicago's third takeaway of the afternoon. The Bears offense ran out the clock, sealing the win and marking the first time since a 41-3 victory at Jacksonville on October 7, 2012, that the Bears allowed three points or fewer.
After two straight dominating performances, and of course two straight wins, the Bears have informed opponents that the ferocious defense is here to stay.
"We've been playing lights-out defense, I'm proud of our boys," McPhee said. "We created an identity, it's on film from earlier this year until now, and we have to keep adding to that identity of a dominant defense. Our secondary playing great, front seven's playing great, and that's all we need.
"We're definitely trying to change the culture," linebacker Leonard Floyd added. "We're trying to wake the city up, bring the city back to loving the Chicago Bears. We're just going to keep fighting, keep going in and executing."