Eddie Jackson replacement, Bears’ Bush draws huge assignment in 49ers’ Kittle

December 23, 2018

Bears safety Eddie Jackson and San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle are the NFL’s only two non-RBs selected after Round 1 of the 2017 draft to be named Pro Bowl starters in their second seasons.

It’s unfortunate that Jackson’s injured right ankle will prevent him from battling Kittle, whom the Niners plucked last year in Round 5 (146th overall), Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, where the 10-4 Bears visit the 4-10 49ers. But Jackson’s injury opens the door for Deon Bush to prove that although he hasn’t emerged as a full-time starter, he still could join Day 3 draft maven Ryan Pace’s growing list of late-round gems.

In addition to Jackson and fellow 2017 fourth-rounder-turned-Pro Bowler Tarik Cohen, Pace has unearthed in his first four drafts the following Day 3 contributors: Adrian Amos, who has started 58 of a possible 62 games to begin his career; Jordan Howard, the most productive running back in his first two seasons in franchise history; and rookie Bilal Nichols, a starter on the NFL’s best defense.

Lest we forget, before Pace truly established himself as a superb late-round drafter, Bush was his highest-selected defensive back, No. 124 overall in 2016. But save for six nondescript starts in the middle of his rookie season, the hard-hitting ex-Miami Hurricane has been relegated to a reserve role — namely the result of the outstanding mileage the Bears have gotten from Amos and Jackson.

Still, Bears DC Vic Fangio said this week that he’s looking forward to seeing the fruits of Bush’s labor.

“One thing about Deon, he works hard,” Fangio said. “Football’s important to him. He wants to do well. I’m anxious to see him play.”

Bush has developed in Year 3 into a core special-teamer, logging a career-high 239 snaps. He only has two tackles in the kicking game, but Bush downed Pat O’Donnell’s first punt Sunday at the Green Bay four-yard line prior to finishing the game on defense following Jackson’s injury.

“That was a great play by Bush,” special-teams coordinator Chris Tabor said. “You’re in that pooch area, so obviously you have to find the ball. The returner — if he doesn’t wave fair catch — can still block you, so you have to negotiate all those things. ... He did what he was supposed to do and made them drive [96] yards against our defense — I like that.”

The Bears would love if Bush can help Amos and their Pro Bowl-laden LB corps Sunday minimize the damage of Kittle, the NFL’s most prolific tight end this season not named Travis Kelce. Only two weeks ago he became the third player ever at his position to record 200 receiving yards in a game, and Kittle has 72 catches for 1,154 yards in his massive second-year leap season. To help illustrate how much the Niners have leaned on their athletic, two-way tight end from Iowa, consider that their next-leading receiver, rookie WR Dante Pettis, has 446 yards, or less than 39 percent of Kittle’s total. Kendrick Bourne is No. 2 on the Niners in receptions ... with 33.

“I think they do a good job in particular of understanding how teams are playing certain coverages,” Fangio said of 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s play-action passing game featuring Kittle. “And maybe where the weaknesses are or where they could pop a guy free.”

Shanahan, like Matt Nagy one of the game’s brightest young offensive minds, will try early and often Sunday to isolate Kittle on Bush, the Bears’ least experienced defender, to determine whether he’s the weak link. Naturally, he’ll represent a drop-off from Jackson, arguably the NFL’s best playmaking safety this season, with rare range and instincts.

But the Bears have done a wonderful job replacing key players this season, going 2-0 without Allen Robinson and Khalil Mack, 1-1 without Mitch Trubisky and acing their first test Sunday since losing underrated nickel back Bryce Callahan. Will Bush, who has been biding his time while watching other lesser known prospects make names for themselves, be next?

“I’m hopeful that he’ll come in and do a good job,” Fangio said. “He’s been waiting for this opportunity.”

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