The 2013 season was one derailed by injuries for the Chicago Bears, with their defense ending up a patchwork mess that barely missed the playoffs thanks to a breathtaking coverage gaffe by Chris Conte in the final game of the season.
In 2014, Conte has done a great job of redeeming himself, with two interceptions in the first two games of the year, but on a night where the Bears’ offense is getting a lot of praise thanks to the work of Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall, it was a rookie that stole the show.
Kyle Fuller, who raised eyebrows when he was selected with the 14th overall pick in May’s NFL Draft, ended up picking off two passes in the game, and the Bears scored touchdowns following both turnovers as they registered a stunning 28-20 victory over the San Francisco 49’ers.
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What was perhaps so remarkable about the interceptions wasn’t the skill involved with both (which we will get to later), but instead that Fuller was able to tune out all the extra noise surrounding him and deliver after making a silly mistake early in the game.
With the Bears down 7-0 after just a few minutes of play, the 49’ers were once again marching down the field, but looked to be stopped. With the 49’ers pinned in a third and long situation, the Bears picked up back-to-back penalties to extend the drive. First it was Willie Young getting flagged for an offside infraction. Then Fuller, who was out on the edge in one-on-one coverage, grabbed Stevie Johnson’s jersey, and after the pass fell incomplete, the Niners were bailed out and got a fresh set of downs.
After that bone-headed play (which helped San Francisco to extend their lead to 10-0), things went from bad to worse for Fuller. He’d played plenty of corner in the preseason as Tim Jennings lined up at the nickel position, but he was thrust into an even bigger role after Charles Tillman went down with a triceps injury early in the third quarter. That meant matchups against some of San Francisco’s top targets, and alarm bells surely went off in the heads of plenty of Bears fans and observers.
Then, in an instant, that trepidation gave way to optimism. On a throw to the outside shoulder of Michael Crabtree, Fuller was somehow able to work his hand between the receiver’s arms, and when the ball popped loose, the rookie cornerback snared it, and carried it all the way down to the San Francisco six-yard line to give his team the best field position they could hope for.
Even after that play (which helped the Bears to take the lead in the contest), Fuller wasn’t done. On a third-and-12 play, Colin Kaepernick dropped back to pass again, and lofted a ball over the middle of the field for Derek Carrier. Even though he wasn’t covering Carrier on the pass, Fuller read the ball and did what Tillman has done so many times in his career: he attacked. Intercepting the ball, Fuller gave the Bears good field position once again, and when Cutler tossed yet another touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall, that was all she wrote as the Bears picked up an improbable win.
No, one game isn’t enough to say that Fuller is going to be the dynamic playmaker that Phil Emery and the Bears anticipate that he will be. He still has plenty of work to do on his game, and if Tillman is out for a long period of time, he will be under an immense amount of pressure to succeed early in his career.
If Sunday night is any indication however, Fuller is not only ready to answer the bell, but he very well could thrive too. He’s got the nose for the football, the drive to reward Emery’s faith, and most importantly of all, he’s got the ability to shrug off a big mistake and do something positive to make up for it.