Even Khalil Mack has left plays on the field.
The Bears linebacker has been an immediate hit since joining the team on Labor Day and arguably has been the best defensive player in the NFL through three weeks. He has four sacks, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and an interception returned for a touchdown and has had a chain-reaction impact on the defense.
But he’s still getting into football shape. He did not participate in training camp or the preseason during his holdout with the Raiders. Maintaining his current production figures to be difficult. On the other hand, he might be just warming up.
“You can say [the defense has been] special, but we’re still trying to get better every week,” Mack said. “There are still things we need to work on defensively. You see the growth. But I’m still mad about certain plays I gave up last week [against the Cardinals].
“That’s the mindset we have in this locker room. That’s the thing that’s most special to me. I’m glad we were able to fight through adversity last week [trailing 14-0 in the first quarter]. It showed a lot. But this is a new week, and we’re ready for the next challenge.”
Though he revels in each big play he makes, Mack also rues the ones he didn’t. On the third play from scrimmage last week against the Cardinals — third-and-four — receiver Christian Kirk got past him in coverage for a 30-yard gain. Two plays later, the Cardinals scored a touchdown. Plays like that stick with him.
“Absolutely,” Mack said. “I can’t help but think about them. I kind of looked at Coach Vic [Fangio] when I walked on the bus, and he kind of shook his head. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got to get back a little further.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, get back.’ It’s just one of those kind of things. It’s always my mindset. I’m trying to get better every week.”
Not surprisingly, Mack holds himself to a high standard. He even apologized to safety Eddie Jackson for an offsides penalty that nullified Jackson’s 35-yard interception return for a touchdown with 14 seconds left.
“Eddie Jackson, that’s my dog,” Mack said. “Hat’s off to Eddie. I’m sorry about last week, brother. I’m going to say that on camera for you, brother. Another special player … and a great teammate.”
So far, Mack has exceeded expectations. He has been worth every cent since he signed the richest contract for a defensive player in NFL history. Even if he levels off, he’ll still likely be a huge factor. But in the hands of Fangio, with budding playmakers around him, there’s no telling where this thing will go.
The league obviously has taken notice. Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter called him “arguably the best defensive player in football right now.”
“He’s one of the best in the business and he’s paid like that for a reason,” Bucs receiver Mike Evans said. “And he deserves every penny of what he’s gotten. He’s hands-down one of the best defenders in the league, if not the best. We’re going to have our hands full with him. Hopefully we can contain him.”