Bears eye return to defensive dominance in Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith home debuts

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Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack reacts after recovering a fumble agduring the first half Sunday.| Jeffrey Phelps, AP photo

Only later, reflecting on the hamstring he injured chasing the Seahawks quarterback on Dec. 2, 2012, would linebacker Brian -Urlacher admit the truth: Russell Wilson ended his career.

With it went the Bears’ defensive mystique. The Seahawks won in overtime after Wilson engineered a game-tying drive in regulation. The Bears split their final four games and fired Lovie Smith for missing the playoffs. Urlacher never played again. In 2013 and 2014, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman combined to miss 37 games because of injury.

Three coaches later — the Bears have won exactly one-third of their games since firing Smith — the team hopes Wilson is on hand for a defensive renaissance Monday.

On the night the Bears honor Urlacher at halftime, they will unveil their new arsenal to the home crowd in prime time.

All-world edge rusher Khalil Mack and rookie inside linebacker Roquan Smith, whose playing time will skyrocket, will make their Soldier Field debuts. Defensive end Akiem Hicks — who was as unstoppable as anyone in the opener, Mack included — will be among the many to benefit.

“I’m not going to lie to you, sugarcoat it,” inside linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “We got some weapons.”

Hicks used one word to describe the -defensive potential.

“Naaaaaasty,” he said.

The trio has a chance to dominate for the next four years, until Hicks’ contract expires. If the Bears exercise Smith’s fifth-year option, he’ll play for them through 2022. Though Mack is under contract through the 2024 season, the Bears can get out from his deal after 2022, when they will have paid him $90.95 million. Syncing that timeline was part of the plan when the Bears decided to trade two first-round picks for Mack and then pay him more than any other defensive player, ever.

“There is a lot of personnel, coaches that end up not doing that thing the right way, and it’s never pieced together, it’s kind of misfitted,” coach Matt Nagy said. “I feel like we’re in a really good spot because of that. We’re young, and then you add guys like Khalil, and you get a rookie in Roquan, and you get your own in [safety] Eddie Jackson and [nose tackle] Eddie Goldman. The list goes on and on, with our corners.

“That’s valuable. To know you have that, now let’s start creating and really homing in on our identity, not only as a defense, but as a team. It’s important.”

That identity, they hope, looks a lot like what the Bears did in the first half against the Packers on Sunday. They allowed 2.5 yards per play, forced two fumbles, recovering one, and recorded an interception that Mack returned for a 27-yard touchdown.

“You definitely got to keep that same intensity throughout the whole game,” Mack said. “You can’t let that fall off, especially against not just Green Bay, but Seattle this week.”

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called Hicks a “real problem” but saved his highest compliment for Mack, whose first-half stat line is already legend.

“He’s as challenging a player as you go against in the league,” Carroll said. “So we’re up against it.”

Great individual performances should spur a sort of friendly one-upmanship.

“Oh, yeah. It’s contagious,” Trevathan said. “I want that bug. We try to spread that around. We want guys to be sick out there.”


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And for Bears fans to get a defense-first fever for the first time since Urlacher retired.

“I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” Mack said. “I’ve seen what it’s like to play there, but I don’t know what it’s going to be like to be a part of the home team this time around. But I’m looking forward to it.”

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