LAKE FOREST — When Khyiris Tonga dropped back in coverage and intercepted Justin Fields over the weekend, an escort of Bears led the way for the 6-foot-4, 338-pound defensive lineman. Tonga made his way to the perimeter along the left sideline and returned the interception 80 yards for a pick-6.
That kind of play in last Saturday’s practice wouldn’t have happened last season and is a byproduct of the “H.I.T.S” philosophy that Bears coach Matt Eberflus has instilled into his players.
“You just see the guys running to the ball,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. “I think you guys were here. But you’ve seen how we finished the play when Khyiris Tonga got the interception, just like things like that, like nobody would have ran all the way to the end zone. As fun as that seems, that’s a lot of energy to do. But it’s just like that muscle memory of catch the ball and run. Everything that we’re doing is ball here, run. Ball here, run. Everything we’re doing is just running to the ball. I mean, that’s kind of funny but it’s real when you really run to the ball, you can get tipped a pass, you can get a fumble because you can never know what can really go on in a game.”
And that goes for every position on the defense. Tonga may not get many opportunities to drop back in coverage like he did on his interception, but this coaching staff has prepared him and the rest of his teammates on what to do if that does occur.
“So we’ve done it a few times. It’s a way to teach how to go from a defensive player to an offensive player,” defensive line coach Travis Smith said. “So once we get our hands on the ball, everything is about the ball. Takeaways, punching it out, intercepting the ball. But we also turn into an offensive player not only protecting the ball but blocking, creating run lanes, and trying to score on defense.”
In 2021, the Bears were tied for last in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals in defensive touchdowns with just two (one interception and a fumble recovery). This Bears team is working on changing that lack of production.
Accountability, though, is key. So that’s why there are “loafs.” After the Week 1 preseason game against the Chiefs, Smith said there were too many loafs and that needed to change.
“That was kind of our first impression, so we want to make sure no matter what when we compete, competition isn’t always against,” Smith said. “Like an old Latin definition of competition is improve, get better. So those loafs in that first game we all knew it wasn’t acceptable, but we want to make sure our standard always is improving. … The best way to do it is to just play extremely hard and fast. I don’t care if the ball is thrown, it’s run away from you. Finish on the football. Finish trying to take a punch or strip it away.”
Travis expects that kind of effort to show up in the last preseason game against Cleveland and for the loafs to reduce even more against the Browns.
This new mentality, of course, starts and ends with believing in “H.I.T.S,” which was something that Johnson didn’t buy into right away because he “wasn’t familiar with” it.
Now, though, the team jokes about it because of the connection it has with Shakespeare.
“Thou who runneth to the ball, good things shall happen,” Johnson said. “So I mean, just things like that. Just really kinda seeing the bright side of running. It’s not just, ‘Oh you guys just run to the ball, just because we say you guys run to the ball.’ It’s some rhyme and reason to why we do it, and once we see good things happen from running to the ball. Then it gives us more confidence to push ourselves to really run to the ball, because you never really know what could happen.”
Every snap of every series in every game there is an opportunity to make a game-changing play. This Bears defense believes that is the case, so no wonder the team has embraced the acronym that has not only shifted the culture but provided the foundation for the team moving forward.
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