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Matt Eberflus wants his Chicago Bears defense to be ‘fanatical’ about creating takeaways. So what’s his formula for instilling that mindset?

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 3/2/2022 Dan Wiederer, Chicago Tribune
New Chicago Bears coach Matt Eberflus speaks after being introduced Monday, Jan. 31, 2022 at Halas Hall in Lake Forest, Illinois. © Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS New Chicago Bears coach Matt Eberflus speaks after being introduced Monday, Jan. 31, 2022 at Halas Hall in Lake Forest, Illinois.

From the day he was announced as the new Chicago Bears coach, Matt Eberflus began singing a popular hymn that will resonate in a passionate football city that loves to rally behind swarming defenses.

Takeaways, Eberflus noted, must become the calling card for a unit he promises will establish itself through effort, intensity and situational intelligence. He wants his defensive players to turn the dial of their takeaway focus past “MAXIMUM” and all the way to “FANATICAL.”

It should become an undying obsession, Eberflus believes. For everyone. Every single day.

“It’s all about the ball,” Eberflus said at his introductory news conference in January. “That’s the most important thing for winning and losing — taking the ball away (on defense) and protecting the football (on offense).”

Here’s where we pause for a simple acknowledgment. Of course takeaways are important. Every defensive coach in the league has similar ambitions and comparable visions for producing them. Yet so many teams — whether because of a lack of talent or a flawed system or broken processes — fail to match their rhetoric with meaningful production.

So it was worth asking Eberflus at the NFL scouting combine Tuesday where the disconnect starts for teams that talk long and hard about prioritizing takeaways yet fall short on actually creating them with regularity.

Don’t forget, last season’s Bears under defensive coordinator Sean Desai introduced a “Takeaway Bucket” to energize players and sharpen their focus. The prop caught on fast at training camp.

But when the games began, the Bears had trouble filling that bucket. They went from Week 5 through Week 16 without creating multiple takeaways in a game and finished tied for 26th in the league with only 16.

That marked the sixth time in nine seasons the Bears finished 20th or lower in that all-important category. Eberflus’ Indianapolis Colts defenses, by contrast, produced 107 takeaways during his four seasons as coordinator, ranking 10th, 10th, fifth and second from 2018-21.

So what is it, then, that separates the haves and have-nots?

“It’s the day-in and day-out process of it,” Eberflus said Tuesday at the Indiana Convention Center. “So when you’re coaching it, it’s every snap. In individual (drills). To start in our first phase when we get players on the field (in April), as soon as we can put a ball out there, we’re going to start talking about it and coaching it. Every single play. And we don’t let that go. That is what I mean about fanaticism.”

Eberflus and coordinator Alan Williams will make it clear to players they don’t want a single practice rep to go by without multiple players attacking the football.

Video: Ryan Poles shares his path to GM of Bears (NFL)

Punch. Hammer. Rake.

And for those defenders who aren’t among the first two or three to the ball, hustle and pursuit will be emphasized. Just in case a ball pops free, the Bears hope to maximize their opportunities to secure it.

Eberflus considers all of this a mindset that needs to be instilled and then strengthened. He also will teach his players about city fumbles — those in heavy traffic — and how best to recover those versus country fumbles — those out in the open — and how to attempt to scoop and score.

Perhaps Eberflus’ formula will work quickly in Chicago. He certainly has a lot of similar points of emphasis as former Bears coach Lovie Smith, who arrived at Halas Hall in 2004 proclaiming that takeaways would be a top priority.

Smith’s teams created 310 turnovers in his nine seasons in Chicago, an average of 34.4 per season, and had at least 28 in every season.

That was evidence to debunk one popular notion that takeaway totals are, by and large, random from year to year with so much hinging on good fortune.

In the nine seasons since Smith’s exit, the Bears have averaged 21 takeaways and topped 25 just twice — in 2013, the first season of the post-Smith era, and 2018 under coordinator Vic Fangio.

Eberflus understands talking points in February and March have to be backed up with action and focus whenever the Bears defense is on the practice field or in the meeting room in the months ahead.

“It’s just doing one action at a time and talking about, ‘Hey, you missed a strip attempt,’” Eberflus said. “Or, ‘That was a great strip attempt.’ Or, ‘Scoop and score, that was great. You guys went for 10 yards like we asked you to.’

“That’s just what you do. You just pay attention to it.”

Sure, that may sound elementary. But it has to become the prevailing mindset. An obsession. All. The. Time.

Said Eberflus: “Sometimes I’ll go by three or four plays (in film review) and say, ‘Oh, let’s go back. Whoa. We missed three strip attempts.’ So you’ve just got to stay on it.”

The Bears have a lot of work to do to replenish their defense during the upcoming player acquisition cycle. Free agency begins in two weeks, and the draft is six weeks after that. Eberflus knows there are many holes to fill and adjustments to make as the Bears shift from a 3-4 base system to a 4-3 while also considering some difficult roster decisions that might put the team’s long-term health ahead of its short-term competitiveness.

Still, the Bears defense has obvious potential catalysts, starting with linebacker Roquan Smith, an established playmaker and respected leader who will have to settle into Eberflus’ defense quickly and then spearhead the turnover rush.

Eberflus said Tuesday the two most important traits he looks for in players is a genuine love for football and a willingness to invest in working hard. He has remained vague in specifying which defensive players on the current roster he sees as core leaders the team can build around and grow with. But he thinks it’s a unit set up to succeed.

“We have pieces in there for sure that fit that mold,” he said.

Now comes the task of adding more pieces — and then turning up the intensity on the takeaway dial.


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