CHICAGO — Trailing the Chicago Bears 28-21 midway through the fourth quarter, outside linebacker Jonathon Cooper knew offensive momentum wouldn't be enough for the Broncos to complete a 21-point comeback. Cooper told his fellow teammates on defense that their unit needed to take over the game.
"I was saying on the sideline that the defense needed to score," Cooper said. "We needed to create a turnover, we needed to do something to get this juice going. I feel like we need to take more accountability as a defense and put more on our shoulders so that we can affect the game more [and] we can get more stops."
On the following drive, Cooper backed up his words. With 6:55 remaining in regulation, outside linebacker Nik Bonitto looked past a play-action fake by Bears quarterback Justin Fields and strip-sacked the Chicago quarterback. Cooper caught the football off one bounce, then rumbled 35 yards to the end zone for the game-tying score — his first touchdown since high school.
Cooper's return was the Broncos' second takeaway of the season and their first fumble return for a touchdown since 2019.
But that wouldn't be the only fourth-quarter highlight for the Broncos' defense, which surrendered touchdown drives on four of the Bears' first six possessions. A fourth-and-1 red-zone stop gave Denver the ball for its go-ahead drive, before safety Kareem Jackson — a vocal presence on the sidelines in the first half — secured the game-ending interception to seal Denver's 31-28 win.
After earning his first win leading the Broncos, Head Coach Sean Payton pointed to the defense as having the pivotal play of the game.
"Those are big plays," Payton said. "Obviously I think, look, the strip fumble arguably [was] the biggest play of the game. When you score on defense you're going to win a lot of games. That ended up being the case today."
With both the Bears and Broncos looking to win their first game of 2023 at sunny Soldier Field, an improved defensive performance was a priority for Denver coming off a 70-20 loss to the Dolphins.
The first half didn't live up to that standard, as Bears quarterback Justin Fields completed his first 16 passes and threw for three touchdowns against a Broncos defense that was without safety Justin Simmons, defensive tackle Mike Purcell and inside linebacker Josey Jewell. Heading into halftime, the Bears held a surprising 21-7 advantage, which they stretched to 28-7 in the third quarter.
"I don't think we blinked once," Cooper said. "Like even with how the game was going and even with everything, everybody kept their composure. Everybody stuck together, kept fighting — and that's what a team does. As long as we have that going into every single week, every single Sunday, we have a very good chance to win."
The Broncos' defense forced a three-and-out on the next Bears drive, while quarterback Russell Wilson led the offense on consecutive touchdown drives to cut Denver's deficit to one score. Cooper and Bonitto responded by making the biggest play of the Broncos' season on Fields, Cooper's former college teammate at Ohio State.
"That was a hell of a play," Cooper said of Bonitto's forced fumble. "Like he said, he just read it really well. When he got that sack, I didn't know if he had hit the ball or it was a [pass breakup] or something. I saw his arm go like, 'Go!' and I took off as fast as I could."
Chicago appeared to regain its first-half momentum on its ensuing drive, stringing together an 11-play drive that drained most of the clock and advanced the Bears into range for a go-ahead field goal.
Instead of attempting a manageable field goal from the Broncos' 18-yard-line, the Bears opted for a run from shotgun. Inside linebacker Alex Singleton and defensive end Zach Allen shut down Chicago running back Khalil Herbert in the backfield.
"We believed," Singleton said. "We knew how bad we played in the first half. Obviously, we're seeing every play on the iPads. We knew we had to just had to come together and get the ball to the offense. I think we ended up with [two] turnovers and against that team, it ends up winning games."
The Broncos finished off the Bears' last-gasp attempt at salvaging the game by spoiling Fields' stellar start with another takeaway. Jackson stepped in the path of tight end Cole Kmet — who flummoxed the Denver secondary for a touchdown reception in the first half — and caught Fields' pass attempt to preserve the Broncos' first victory.
"We felt like if we could keep [Fields] there, we would get an opportunity," Payton said. "Certainly that's what happened in the last play where Kareem intercepted it. We had him kind of right where we wanted him in the pocket."
The Broncos' defenders believe the second-half performance was much more indicative of the unit that they can be, though they're already looking forward to returning to the practice field and learning from Sunday's uneven but opportunistic performance.
Singleton said the defense's journey from disarray in the first half to glory in the final possessions was emblematic of its start to the 2023 season.
"It's getting through those waves," Singleton said. "I think every game has adversity. Coach says it all the time — there is no perfect game. Just like this year's been, it's the same thing. We started off terribly on defense … we came in and were able to start getting stops [and] start getting in a flow."