CHICAGO – Matt Eberflus wrapped Eddie Jackson in a bear hug on the sideline. The moment was a long time coming for the Chicago Bears safety, who seconds earlier jumped in front of a pass thrown by San Francisco quarterback Trey Lance on a third-and-5 in the fourth quarter and came away with an interception, his first since Dec. 29, 2019.
Since taking over as coach of the Bears this offseason, Eberflus has called this a "clean slate" for Jackson, a veteran holdover from the previous regime who signed a massive contract extension in early 2020.
"That was outstanding," Eberflus said of Jackson's game-changing interception. "I couldn't be prouder of him."
Eberflus earned his first NFL win because his team won the turnover and penalty differentials. The Bears totaled two takeaways -- cornerback Jaylon Johnson and safety Jaquan Brisker combined for a forced fumble and recovery -- and just three penalties for 24 yards. Fifteen of those penalty yards came when holder Trenton Gill was flagged for trying to soak up water on the field with a towel.
"We've said from the onset that we're going to play smart, aggressive football," Eberflus said. "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."
Eberflus promotes a HITS principle, which stands for Hustle, Intensity, Takeaways, (Playing) Smart. Sunday's result can help solidify the players' buy-in.
"You start to see the results on film, the way we practice, the way we hustle, just the mindset of the whole team, how we built our foundation," Jackson said. "Continue to build this identity on defense. We just want to continue to fly around and get this going."
Chicago proved its ability to bounce back from a slow start when Justin Fields and the offense ripped off touchdowns on three straight possessions after going scoreless in the first half.
But it was the Bears' defense that provided consistency. The Bears did not blitz Lance on any of his 34 dropbacks and still got pressure on him 12 times, limiting the second-year quarterback to 1-of-7 for minus-2 yards passing on those dropbacks, plus two sacks and three scrambles.
What the Bears learned was they could set the tone with their defense and eventually everything else would fall into place.
As the offense got better in the second half, Chicago's defense continued to hum. The Bears cut down on the 49ers' running game (6.4 yards per rush allowed in the first half, 3.2 yards per rush in the second) as a way to stifle an offense known for coming at opponents from all angles.
The mainstays on this defense, like Jackson and linebacker Roquan Smith with his team-high nine tackles and half sack, led the way, but the contributions from rookies like Brisker, defensive end Dominique Robinson (1.5 sacks, 7 tackles, TFL) and cornerback Kyler Gordon (6 tackles, TFL) were critical.
"It puts a bigger belief in the locker room," defensive end Robert Quinn said. "Guys with the ups and down and all the 'ifs.'
"Regardless of what the outside says, we can control the message in this locker room."