Around a year ago at this time, a "Where's Waldo" situation involved Bears' cornerback Kyle Fuller in a perplexing injury storyline. The 25-year-old corner missed the entirety of the 2016 season after being healthy enough (or not?) to come off of injured reserve late in the year. Needless to say, the Bears weren't happy and his future in Chicago was in doubt after higher-ups declined a fifth-year option on his rookie deal. When they then signed Marcus Cooper and Prince Amukamara in free agency, the fight for Fuller's NFL longevity was on.
Flash forward six games into 2017, and Fuller has been everything the Phil Emery-Bears envisioned him as when drafting No. 14 overall in the 2014 Draft: a defensive secondary centerpiece. He's separated himself from the pack more than Chicago could've imagined.
Fuller's play thus far as yes, the Bears' No. 1 defensive back, has been such a quick turn of events that not many expected to hit them in the right face. It's a welcome rise from a young player hitting his prime and finally coming into his own. One that dramatically realigns both his future in Chicago and for a defense that was desperately seeking consistent playmakers on the back end in the early season.
What has always been Fuller's issue early on in the NFL, was playing with his back to the ball with proper technique. To do that, a player must have effective and aggressive confidence in his technique, a facet that eluded Fuller at intermittent points in his career leading up to this season.
That isn't the case anymore as Fuller mugs opposing receivers with previously unforeseen physicality, and stays balanced in proper tracking. The eye test tells all. He's always had the tools, intelligence, and physical ability. It's been the mental doubt that's held him back. Evidently a late bloomer, Fuller now looks every bit the hyped player with the pedigree coming out of Virginia Tech years ago.
Better late than never.
Sunday's game in Baltimore was the best example of the "arrived" Fuller. It, to me, was the best he's ever played in an individual professional contest. When you're targeted 15 times and allow just four receptions for 43 yards for a 42.4 passer rating, you begin to earn the mantel of "Fuller Island" (all trademarks are mine). When you have six tackles and three defensed passes, you're on another level of swagger. You're practically begging the opposing quarterback to go your way, as for whatever reason, Joe Flacco and company did.
Not a wise move.
Fuller's game against the Ravens was so good, it had Pro Football Focus grade it as the second best game of his career with an 88.9 assessment according to their metrics. He was the kind of player you can heartily rely on in one-on-one assignments and run support. A complete cornerback.
Let's take a look at his highlight plays and the best examples of a fiery Fuller on Sunday that the Bears have been waiting to unearth. Every time the Bears secondary was put to the task against Baltimore, Fuller was primarily involved, after all.
The first example is what ended up becoming Adrian Amos' 90-yard interception return touchdown in the fourth quarter. One of the most crucial sequences in the Bears' win. Fuller was the man in coverage on Ravens receiver Chris Moore. We're going to focus mostly on Fuller even as Amos strode his way almost the length of the field for a score.
To start the play, Fuller is in off man coverage. He knows he has help over the top from Amos so he's free to roam back as far as possible. It's a second-and-long situation, which likely predicates a deep passing route from his man, something Fuller is obviously prepared for. Off-technique was the perfect call here.
Now, as Flacco rolls right in a designed boot, Fuller shadows Moore but never lets Flacco out of his sight. The ball more than likely will come his way in Fuller's mind, so he can't give up any space after the initial cushion. That cushion is what allows him to eventually swallow up Moore.
With Flacco's first read taken away by Leonard Floyd on tight end Nick Boyle, he decides to inexplicably take the shot at Fuller - a mistake he made all afternoon. Fuller's positioning and awareness on the field with help from Amos in the middle, takes away any option for Moore to work inside, so he's free to roam for boundary routes. Moore attempts to go for the deep comeback which Fuller is locked in on. The ball finally comes his way and Fuller plays it to a tee, knocking the ball up out of Moore's hands in the most ideal tip drill possible, Amos does the rest as the Bears' best corner creates Chicago's second interception of the season.
What we'll now primarily center in on, happened on the Ravens' final possession of the first half. One where with nine yards from goal to go, they inexplicably targeted Chicago's best defensive back on three consecutive plays. That's a bold strategy, Cotton: it didn't work out for them.
On first down, tight end Benjamin Watson runs the "flag" route which is the same as a post, except it works to the boundary instead of the middle of the field. Fuller, again in off-man coverage, never bites on any inside move by Watson in what was quite frankly a poorly ran route by the veteran. At this point, all Fuller has to do is break the ball at the right time, which his innate athleticism allows him do, and you get an incomplete pass.
As the All-22 further evidences, Flacco also does a poor job of going through his progressions. He never looks off the right side which allows Fuller to key in on the direction of the pass from the outset. He knows he's on an island in one deep third and Flacco gives him a present. You can't give a corner with the ability of Fuller such a gift of a read like that. That ball will fall incomplete or worse every single time.
To the next play, on second and goal, the Ravens obviously thought they had something on Fuller on the right side and try him again. This time Fuller is lined up against the noted one-dimensional deep threat, Mike Wallace. Gee, I wonder what could be coming next?
As Wallace unsurprisingly strides up field, Fuller presses up against him with no wasted space and leaves him as little room as possible along the boundary to make a play on an errantly thrown ball by Flacco. If anything, the ball was errantly thrown because Fuller threw off the timing of the play immediately. Yes, he engaged with Wallace after five yards, but it wasn't anything egregious to where a sane official would make the call. It was the proper amount of contact within the rules.
In retrospect, much like Watson, Wallace does a poor job of selling his route as well. That's what affords the 6-foot receiver no space to make a play on what was essentially morphed into a fade. He opens up too quickly so Fuller seals his space. I don't know many fades you want to run for a 6-foot receiver, if any, either. Also give credit to Adrian Amos for reacting quickly to take away Flacco's late check down option to Alex Collins.
Ultimately, what completes this play is Fuller being prepared based on the matchup and the situation - goal to go with less than 30 seconds to go - and locking off a dynamic speedster with a non-versatile skill set. Fuller couldn't afford any breakdown inside and indeed never budges towards that direction. Third and long, here we come.
Finally, on one of the make or break plays of the game, the Ravens again go towards Fuller on third down. Third time's the charm, right? Wrong.
What's different on this play from the first two, is that the Bears actually get a bit of pressure on Flacco, forcing him to improvise. Leonard Floyd's rush up field against right tackle Austin Howard and running back Javorius Allen unnecessarily makes Flacco believe his safe bubble is burst so he inexplicably decides to work to his right. With Floyd still chasing him from the back side, Flacco knows he has to get rid of the ball quickly anywhere or risk losing a chance at any points.
Enter Chris Matthews, a former Seahawks Super Bowl XLIX hero, lined up against Fuller. On this occasion, Fuller has more ground to cover in the end zone with Amos filling in space as Flacco rolls and attempts to make a move. An easy task given the zone Fuller was in, however.
Fuller then, in the finale of his virtuoso lockdown sequence never falls for a double move from Matthews. Matthews immediately tries to stutter to the outside once he reaches Fuller, but Fuller doesn't remotely bite. And once Matthews works his way back inside, Fuller is right in his hip pocket, giving a pressured Flacco no space to make something out of nothing. Once the rangy Eddie Jackson recognizes where the ball is coming from the other side of the field, he closes as well to double Matthews late, and Flacco throws the ball high and away over his intended target.
A wholly rough sequence for a passing offense trying to pick on a No. 1 cornerback came to an end as Baltimore settled for a field goal. A demonstration of a former first-round cornerback in Fuller emphatically telling the offense he owns his side of the field and that they have to pay rent.
With still 10 games left in this topsy-turvy Bears season, there's plenty more to prove for the embattled Fuller and securing a future in Chicago. If he continues this kind of play down the stretch and stays consistent, the Bears will have no choice but to pony up a deal for a young talent entering his prime on the brink of free agency. You don't let blue chip play like this walk.
He's big. He's physical. He's fast. He's confident. He's exactly what Vic Fangio wants in a cornerback.
To quoth the Ravens, he's the new and improved Kyle Fuller.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is an editor for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.