Sitting on the sideline the last two weeks, Bears linebacker Khalil Mack was excited by too many of his teammates to mention — though he tried.
“You’ve got Bryce, Eddie — both Eddies: Little Eddie, Big Eddie — and Akiem,” he said Friday. “Aaron was balling, ‘Flo’ was getting in his rhythm. Kyle, Prince, all the guys.”
With Mack out because of an ankle injury, his fellow players on defense — in order, Bryce Callahan, Eddie Jackson, Eddie Goldman, Akiem Hicks, Aaron Lynch, Leonard Floyd, Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara — emerged from his considerable shadow. They allowed only one touchdown and one field goal in each of the two games without him. The last time something similar happened was, well, when the same unit gave up a total of three touchdowns and eight field goals in Weeks 13-16 last year.
That’s the most intriguing part of Mack’s return to action Sunday against the Lions — how the star linebacker fits back into a defense that, for the last two weeks, has resembled its top-10 ranking last year.
“That’s what I’m trying to tell y’all,” Mack said. “I’m excited to come here and play with these guys, knowing that they have the talent that they have. Even without me, it’s a hell of a thing.
“I’m excited to be a part of the party this week and get ready for Detroit.”
Coach Matt Nagy has a word for what Mack brings to the defense. He’s a “multiplier,” someone who can make good players even better.
“Our guys have a lot of confidence in themselves,” Nagy said. “We felt that way when we were in training camp and heading into the season. And when we added Khalil in the trade, he just elevated everybody’s trade even more.”
Mack forced a fumble in each of his first four games and racked up five sacks as the Bears started 3-1. He hurt his right ankle in the first half against the Dolphins and was hobbled the rest of the game. The next week against the Patriots, in another loss, he played coverage more than at any point in his career.
The Bears decided to sit him for their games against the Jets and Bills with their eye on a three-games-in-12-days stretch against the Lions, Vikings and Lions again. The first of those games Sunday is a soft landing spot for Mack’s return; the Lions allowed 10 sacks against the Vikings last week.
However, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio seemed to send a message earlier in the week when he said Mack’s knowledge of the defense was “not where he needs to be, or where we want him to be” because he has missed practice time and game action. Fangio praised Mack’s preparation, though, and said he’ll play more decisively in pass coverage as he gets to know the Bears’ defense better.
“Just more confidence in what to do and how to do it for us,” Fangio said. “And hopefully a little faster reactions.”
Mack wasn’t too concerned.
“I’ve been doing this for five years now, rushing and dropping,” he said. “It’s nothing that’s too difficult.”
Safety Adrian Amos understands the outside infatuation with Mack, though Mack doesn’t seek it out. The highest-paid defender in NFL history has earned the right to be talked about as such.
“But don’t downplay the rest of the defense, because this defense was top-10 last year,” Amos said. “He’s a rare talent. I feel like we’re a good defense. It’s not just one person and one thing.”
Having played alongside Peyton Manning and Von Miller with the Broncos, linebacker Danny Trevathan accepts the media attention that comes with playing alongside superstars. After proving their worth without Mack, the Bears are ready to see how elite their defense will become with him healthy.
That’s the power of a “multiplier.”
“He’s a baller,” Trevathan said. “I don’t know how guys feel, but I like to win.”