The Bears didn't have to play from behind at all on Sunday.
The team has climbed to 5-1 due to three fourth-quarter comebacks. Against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, however, the Bears defense set the team up to control the game through a dominating first drive that culminated in an interception deep in Panthers territory.
First, linebackers Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn stuffed running back Mike Davis for a one-yard loss. Then, defensive end Bilal Nichols sacked quarterback Teddy Bridgewater inches shy from the goal-line. In two plays, the Bears had forced the Panthers into an uncomfortable third-and-long: exactly the opportunity in which this defense can thrive.
"They're typically a team that likes to live in a third-and-2 to 6 because they're so efficient, man," said safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. "They don't get behind in the sticks. And we was able to get them behind on the sticks."
Gipson was the beneficiary of the situation. Rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson tipped a Bridgewater pass into the air, right into Gipson's hands.
"We knew that it was going to be all stick routes on the first-down marker," said Gipson, "and Jaylon went to make a break. I was just playing football, reading Teddy. My man sat down, so I got my eyes to where he was going. He threw it to Jaylon, man. Jaylon couldn't make the pick, [but he] made the play on the ball. Sometimes that ball just falls in the right places at the right time."
Gipson now leads the team with two interceptions. The veteran has now recorded multiple picks in six of his nine seasons in the NFL. However, Gipson gave most of the credit to Johnson for the play. He also joked that safety Eddie Jackson would come down hard on him for failing to get into the end zone.
"I'm going to have to hear about it," said Gipson, "but I've got to make the running back miss. But at the end of the day, it was just a great play by Jaylon first and foremost."
A big first: Gipson's interception set up rookie tight end Cole Kmet's first career touchdown. Kmet, the Bears' top selection in the 2020 draft, had only caught one pass in his first five NFL games.
After a delay of game penalty forced the Bears into third-and-goal at the 9-yard line, quarterback Nick Foles found Kmet over the middle, and the rookie was able to find the ball in traffic. Kmet considered the opportunity to be a pleasant surprise.
"The ball wasn't really supposed to come to me," said Kmet, "and it got killed. I kind of saw where the safeties were lined up. I knew that there was a possibility that the ball would come to me. Obviously, it came my way. I made the play."
Kmet considered the play "a faith throw" by Foles.
"The safety was playing a little shaded outside of me, and I was running that post route. [I] kind of cleared the safety and I still had some guys on me, but Nick threw it up, and I made the play, so obviously [it's] cool that a guy like that was able to trust me in that situation to go make a play for him."
Kmet said that the gravity of the situation hadn't fully set in yet.
"Jimmy [Graham] came up to me and just congratulated me," said Kmet. "He's like, 'be ready for more to come' and all that. So, I kind of took the time there [to reflect]. That was pretty cool. But yeah, kind of crazy right now that that actually happened."
The trend continues: The Bears came into the game with the league's best red-zone defense, keeping opposing offenses out of the end zone on 63.2 percent of red-zone trips.
The defense continued to succeed in that area against the Panthers, forcing field goals on two of three trips inside the 20-yard line.
"It was just more so about being a brick wall," said linebacker Roquan Smith. "You know what I'm saying? It's not letting the guys in and forcing them to a field goal. So that was our main thing. And then we've been pretty solid in that area. I think 1-for-3. We let them get in one time, so we'll just have to get in the lab for that."
The key gut-check moment game toward the end of the first half, after a neutral-zone infraction gave the Panthers first-and-goal at the 3-yard line. An open-field tackle by cornerback Kyle Fuller prevented Bridgewater from scoring what looked to be an easy touchdown.
"That play is designed to make it a one-on-one tackle," said Gipson. "Kyle is a willing tackler. He is one of the best. As a matter of fact, he is the best."
Familiar face: Safety DeAndre Houston-Carson spent his first three seasons in Chicago as a key special-teams performer, but the absence of backup safety Deon Bush has given the fourth-year veteran a chance to shine in clutch situations.
After batting down a fourth-down throw by Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady to seal a Bears victory last week, Houston-Carson clinched the game Sunday when he intercepted Bridgewater on the first play of the Panthers' final drive.
Houston-Carson was selected in the sixth round of the 2016 draft out of FCS program William & Mary. His work ethic had earned him the respect of his teammates long before he was making game-saving plays.
"We don't see him as a reserve," said Smith. "Technically, he was out there, so I don't see him as that. But he stepped up. He came up when his number was called, so he's just been making plays. As a defense, we love it when the pressure is on us."