Bears

Big-game hunting: Khalil Mack is Bears’ answer for Aaron Rodgers, NFC North QBs

In Week 15 of the 2015 season, Khalil Mack introduced himself to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers with a spin move.

On a third-and-eight play in the first quarter in Oakland, Rodgers stepped up and started to roll to his right. He appeared to be on the verge of making something out of nothing, which he is known to do. The Bears know that well.

The problem for Rodgers was that Mack attacked.

Mack raced upfield and spun to the inside of right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who lost his balance and fell. He quickly closed on Rodgers and sacked him for an eight-yard loss. Rodgers slammed the ball in frustration.

Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack meets the media for the first time at Halas Hall. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack meets the media for the first time at Halas Hall. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Mack played only that one game against the Packers, who won 30-20 because the Raiders were average at best that season, but it’s an example of how Mack is able to level the playing field against the Bears’ rivals.

How does Mack feel about getting to face Rodgers twice every season from now on?

“That’s exciting,” Mack said Sunday, a day after the Bears acquired him in a historic trade and signed him to six-year, $141 million contract extension.

“You want to go against the best. I feel like he’s one of the best in the game. That’s exciting for me. I’m a competitor. That’s what I love to do. I love to compete against the best.”

To be the best, you have to beat the best, and the Bears just added one of the best defensive players to harass Rodgers, the Lions’ Matthew Stafford and Vikings’ Kirk Cousins.

Similar to the Rams and Eagles, the Bears took advantage of the affordability of quarterback Mitch Trubisky’s rookie contract. They invested their money in other positions, from Mack to receiver Allen Robinson to tight end Trey Burton to defensive lineman Akiem Hicks.

Coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace might not be saying it, but they’re certainly envisioning a transition for Trubisky that compares with what the Rams’ Jared Goff and Eagles’ Carson Wentz accomplished in their second seasons.

“I think who we have surrounded [Trubisky] with, too, starting with coach Nagy is really important for his growth and maturation,” Pace said.

It helps Trubisky that Mack is chasing down Rodgers, Stafford and Cousins and not him. Mack is the Bears’ answer for the NFC North’s talented quarterbacks.

“There’s some special quarterbacks that defenses need to prepare for,” Nagy said. “So anytime you add a guy of Khalil’s ability, you just know that you’re helping yourself out. It’s so important for us because he’s the closest to the quarterback. He gets to affect the quarterback every play.”

For Nagy, it’s more than sacks, too. It’s the cumulative hits on quarterbacks.

“That rattles you more than a sack sometimes,” Nagy said. “It can affect the quarterback for the rest of the game.”

Nagy knows firsthand how disruptive Mack can be on quarterbacks. He game-planned against him twice a year in four consecutive seasons as the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

“You have to know where he’s at, you just do,” Nagy said. “He demands that from offenses.”

Nagy summed up everything Mack provides on the field in one word: “dominance.”

Mack has 5½ sacks in eight career games against the Chiefs, but as Nagy said, there’s more to Mack than sacks.

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According to Pro Football Focus, Mack accounted for 79 pressures on quarterbacks last season. Bears outside linebacker Leonard Floyd produced 36. In 2016 when Mack was named defensive player of the year, he had 96 quarterback pressures.

“He’s just a rare talent,” Pace said.

He’s one that changes the Bears’ timeline, too, though the Bears won’t declare it.

“It’s his youth, the position he plays and it’s the dynamic player that he is,” Pace said. “It’s kind of a rare moment that this type of player becomes available.”