GLENDALE, Ariz. — In just three games, Bears linebacker Khalil Mack has established himself as the lead dog on a defense that showed off its bite Sunday. But the All-Pro linebacker knows he’s in the right place at the right time.
“Man, I’m thrilled as a [expletive],” Mack said after sparking a defensive turnaround with two sacks, a forced fumble, a tackle for loss and three quarterback hits without a penalty in the Bears’ 16-14 victory over the Cardinals at State Farm Stadium. “It’s very gratifying to have these guys. I’m blessed to be in the position I’m in, to come in and help any way I can. You got some great players on this defense.”
The impact of Mack as the difference-making leader — supported by an increasing number of complementary playmakers that his presence is helping create — was never more evident after the defense recovered from a first-quarter knockdown with a series of upper-cuts that helped turn what appeared to be a discouraging loss into a thrilling victory.
Mack led the way, most importantly with a forced fumble on a Sam Bradford scramble that Danny Trevathan recovered at the Bears’ 16-yard line early in the fourth quarter with the Bears trailing 14-13.
But there were other less-heralded heroes as well. Safety Eddie Jackson’s interception in the third quarter set up the team’s lone touchdown drive. When cornerback Prince Amukamara suffered a hamstring injury, backup Sherrick McManis had an interception that led to a field goal and closed it out with a sack of rookie quarterback Josh Rosen.
With the Cardinals driving to win the game, rookie defensive tackle Bilal Nichols made a huge play, dropping running back Chase Edmonds for a three-yard loss on third-and-two from the Bears’ 42-yard line. On fourth down, nickel back Bryce Callahan intercepted Rosen with 1:10 to go.
“Today was one of those days where we needed the whole team,” Jackson said. “Facing adversity, knowing everybody coming in [the locker room] at halftime, there were no thoughts in the back of anyone’s mind that we were going to lose this game.
“When you see that compared to last year, when you see the coaching change, the identity change, it’s something special. I keep saying and I really believe — we have something special here.”
Facing a Cardinals offense that had yet to cross midfield in the first half of its first two games, the Bears allowed a five-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the opening possession. After quarterback Mitch Trubisky lost a fumble, the Cardinals scored on the ensuing play when Bradford threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to running back David Johnson for a 14-0 lead.
At that point, the Bears had allowed 101 yards on nine plays (11.2 yards per play). After that, they appeared to flip the switch, allowing 120 yards on 39 plays (3.1 yards per play) with four sacks and four takeaways. The Cardinals’ last eight drives ended in punt, punt, punt, interception, interception, fumble, interception, and McManis’ game-clinching sack.
“That’s the thing — it’s not about flipping the switch,” Mack said. “We want to stay consistent throughout the game. Those first two scores were a little adversity. Just seeing the way we rallied, it’s very positive, especially in the third game.”
Two weeks ago, the defense started strong and finished poorly. This time, it turned things around.
This defense is playing off of Mack’s excellence.
“The will to win,” Mack said, when asked what impressed him about the group he joined. “You see it in the back end, the linebackers, up front. Everybody is jelling together. It’s a brotherhood and it’s something real special going on.”