The Bears defense has undeniably made significant progress in the three years since general manager Ryan Pace took over. It’s gone from a scrappy, well-coached unit that once featured Shea McClellin, Demontre Hurst, and Tracy Porter, to one anchored by Akiem Hicks, Kyle Fuller, and Leonard Floyd. Pace and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio have been patient to carefully craft their defensive puzzle with each successive off-season, and for the most part they’ve done well.
Yet for as much as progress as they made with a defense that finished in the top 10 in yards allowed in 2017 and No. 14 overall in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, it always felt like there was something missing. The Bears had playmakers at every level in Hicks, Floyd, Fuller, and Danny Trevathan. They possessed solid starters in Prince Amukamara and Adrian Amos. They featured young up-and-comers such as Eddie Jackson and Eddie Goldman.
But they were good, not great.
The Bears had enough to occasionally bully terrible quarterbacks and maintain pride, but not enough to flex their muscles as they pleased on elite offenses. The Bears unfortunately lacked that one signifying and distinguishing element. They had Floyd on the edge and a bunch of guys such as Sam Acho more suited as depth than anything an NFL offensive coordinator lost sleep over.
Enter Khalil Mack, a one-man wrecking crew and a ball of pure, concentrated fury.
The Bears’ trade for Mack did a lot of good to spark optimistic feelings about them. His presence alone takes Chicago’s rising defense that was stuck in place to the stratosphere. Mack makes this Bears unit one that can win games by itself, with minimal offensive play in account. On paper, this is a matchup-proof gauntlet that can only be overcome by football’s truly gifted quarterbacks.
The 27-year-old superstar thrilled to be “wanted” and supported adequately, adamantly knows it.
“It’s just that feeling that they’re excited to have you, and just understanding what’s going on over here right now,” Mack said in his introductory press conference at Halas Hall on Sunday. “It’s an exciting time to be a Chicago Bear. You have young talent, and on the defensive side of the ball, you definitely have some dogs. I’m looking forward to getting out there with them dogs.”
Who are those dogs exactly, according to Mack?
“I met Akiem [Hicks] this morning,” he said. “You talk about Leonard [Floyd], speed off the edge. Kyle Fuller, he’s a corner that comes up and tackles like a linebacker. You’ve got those guys that are definitely some dogs.”
Mack is rightfully credited for being a pass rushing beast of which is largely unmatched. What he doesn’t get enough praise for is his self-awareness. His willingness to learn on the fly and capacity to adapt to fresh circumstances without a hitch. It’s why he’s at the top of his field, and why he can be the Bears’ football Godzilla.
“I’ve always thought of myself as the best defensive player in the league and I want to play like the best defensive player in the league,” said Mack. “I just want to be the best at what I do.”
An unstoppable force matched with an unstoppable object
Let’s say the two-time First-team All-Pro, 2016 Defensive Player of the Year, and the only player to ever be named First-Team All-Pro at two positions in the same season (outside linebacker and defensive end in 2016) in Mack is the best defensive player in the NFL as he professes. What kind of a ripple effect does a player of that caliber have on the Bears’ defense across the board? You can’t begin to properly measure his impact.
Akiem Hicks, an arguable All-Pro level player himself, is no longer the center of attention for offensive coordinators. One of the best pass rushing 3-4 defensive ends in existence with 15.5 sacks in the last two seasons is going to see an abundance of one-on-ones moving forward. That’s what happens when focus is diverted towards Mack’s all-encompassing power.
If you safely assume Mack is double-teamed almost every pass play (as he should be), then that leaves Hicks on an island to take care of business on the same side. If for whatever reason an offense double-teams Hicks instead of Mack, then good luck. If an offense elects to double-team both Hicks and Mack in a max protective scheme, they’ve limited their own playbook severely and are letting Leonard Floyd go to work: the one Bear who stands to benefit most from Mack as a better second fiddle than primary edge option.
That increased pressure of three pass rushing dynamos offers the Bears what every great defense needs: a trio of studs that harasses quarterbacks to no end. The stellar Jaguars (Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, and Malik Jackson) and Vikings (Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, and Sheldon Richardson), who both led the NFL in most defensive statistics last year, each have this dynamic. Their pass rush prowess allows Jacksonville and Minnesota to freely rush four players without sacrificing defensive integrity by blitzing. It allows them to be elite defenses because they can play straight up and let their talent take over, instead of trying to outwit opponents.
With Mack in the fold, the Bears can share the Jaguars and Vikings’ company in this facet.
You can game-plan for one pass rusher quite easily in the NFL. Throw a double his way every now and then, done. You can account for two pass rushers too, albeit with more effort. No problem. With three buzzsaws like Mack, Hicks, and Floyd, you’re working overtime to put in failsafe after failsafe after failsafe. Even then, your plan may not come to fruition as the trio breaks your game.
Assuredly, Hicks understands this sentiment perfectly. He’s about to have a much more leisurely time on the football field with Mack lined up next to him.
“He’s the type of player that makes everybody’s job easier,” said Hicks.
Takeaways and more takeaways
Fuller, Jackson, Amukamara, and Amos are solid, sometimes good players when playing together. However, no one will confuse these defensive backs for being elite.
The way you elevate that kind of back-end is by making them work that much less thanks to a sinkhole-swallowing pass rush. If great quarterbacks elevate the play of okay receivers on offense, great pass rushers like Mack elevate the play of adequate secondary members on defense.
Chicago has, to put it lightly, struggled in recent years to generate much of any turnovers, setting bars for a record-low amount of interceptions in 2016 and 2017. No other NFL team has less takeaways than the Bears’ 50 total since 2015. It’s been a never-ending storyline that won’t go away until they enjoy more success in that department. You can’t be a great defense if you don’t take the ball away.
That fact goes double for Amukamara as he hasn’t caught an interception since 2015, and for Amos, who has one pick in his three-year career. Two players perennially snakebitten. Their collective failures to make plays on the ball aren’t going to happen anymore if Mack has anything to say, simply with an increased sheer volume of chances from pressured quarterbacks. This is a Bears defense that should force the issue more often than not.
As a member of this Bears secondary who made a bold 10-interception prediction in training camp, Amukamara is ecstatic about how Mack can assist him in reaching for the stars.
“Those 10 picks are looking a little bit more promising,” said Amukamara.
Running free like the wind
Where Mack doesn’t get enough credit beyond burying passers is his run defense. Fun fact: Mack is the NFL’s leader in tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage since his arrival in 2014. The reality is that there isn’t a more disciplined and more aggressive edge defender against the run than Mack. He’s arguably an even better run defender than he is a pass rusher, making him a complete, well-rounded talent with virtually no weakness.
This crucial note translates to the play of Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith, the Bears’ embattled inside linebackers for different reasons. Mack’s all-worldly proficiency at setting the edge and eating space being added to Hicks and Eddie Goldman up front, means the occasions where Trevathan and Smith have to directly take on blocks against the run will come sparingly.
The best way to have quality linebacker play is by giving them clean lanes to the ballcarrier. Even the greatest of all-time needed their front four to clear paths. It’s easier said than done. Thanks to Mack the Bears should have no issue facilitating those routes for Trevathan and Smith. Two players in the middle able to play with reckless abandon from sideline to sideline without worry of being consistently erased by 300-plus pound men.
If there was anxiety about Smith’s ability to take on blocks coming out of Georgia, those worries should be at a hush now.
A changed culture
For four years, Khalil Mack wreaked havoc upon AFC quarterbacks with no regard for their well-being. For four years, he made it his personal mission to put the Raiders defense on his back as he morphed into one of the NFL’s most mystifying defensive players.
That man, that powerful, commanding, imposing presence of a man in Mack, is now in Chicago set to play for the Bears defense. Set to become a nightmare, and a face of the franchise the Bears haven’t had on defense since Brian Urlacher. Hell, a face of the franchise they haven’t had on either side of the ball in a long time.
Unlike in Oakland where he was expected to lift the Raiders’ defense on his incredibly defined shoulders week in and week out, Mack’s part of a Bears defense that can let him shine individually with less pressure on him all around.
And who knows? Maybe the ceiling Mack gives this Bears defense is higher than anyone cares to believe.
“That’s what I want to be a part of here,” Mack said. “The 1985 Bears defense, just thinking about those days, seeing all the NFL Films and just reminiscing about those times, you want to bring those times back to the present.”
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer for Windy City Gridiron, The Rock River Times, The Athletic Chicago, and a host of other fine publications. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski and reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.