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Quiet seasons for dueling superstars Bears’ Khalil Mack, Rams’ Aaron Donald

Both pass rushing virtuosos are well below their usual sack numbers, but if one of them busts their slump Sunday, that could make all the difference in crucial game for the Bears and Rams.

Mack’s 5.5 sacks have him on pace for his lowest season total since his rookie year.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Two of the NFL’s most magnificent, menacing pass rushers will be in action in prime time Sunday night in Los Angeles, and you might not even notice.

Bears star linebacker Khalil Mack and Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald signed contracts worth a combined $282 million a little over a year ago, yet neither leads his team in sacks nine games into the season.

Mack has just 5½, putting him on pace for his lowest total since his rookie year with the Raiders in 2014, and hasn’t had one since Week 8 against the Chargers. He went all of October without forcing a fumble — quite a drought for someone of his caliber.

It’s never easy for a guy who faces constant double- and triple-teams, and Mack is eager for a breakthrough.

“You can go through anything on a football field,” he said. “But ultimately, it’s how you react and how you come out of it.”

Donald, who had a staggering 20½ sacks in 2018, earning him a fourth consecutive All-Pro selection, has only six sacks this year. He seems to be heating up, though, with five in his last four games.

The frustrating part for both teams is that the extra attention on Mack and Donald hasn’t opened the floodgates for everyone else. Journeyman defensive tackle Nick Williams leads the Bears with six sacks, and their team total of 25 (one every 14.7 drop-backs) is tied for 12th in the NFL after they finished third last season. Old-timer Clay Matthews leads the Rams with seven, followed by Dante Fowler (6½) and Donald, and the Rams are one spot ahead of the Bears with 26.

Without a consistent, intimidating threat to the quarterback, it’s no surprise these teams have slipped in takeaways, too. The Bears have fallen from No. 1 last season to No. 15, and the Rams have dropped from third to 10th.

Mack and Donald are doing everything they can to spur their defenses out of their respective lulls. Each has played 86 percent of his team’s defensive plays and is tracking toward nearly 1,000 snaps for the season.

And regardless of the dips in their stats, they remain the focal point of the opposition’s game plan.

“As far as Mack goes, there’s no guy you have more respect for in the league, in my mind,” Rams coach Sean McVay said.

Bears coach Matt Nagy returned the compliment to Donald.

“We’d better know where he is at,” Nagy said. “It’s about as simple as it gets, and we understand that. To be able to see somebody play the game the way he plays it on every snap . . . if you don’t know where he is at on the field on every single play, you’re going to be in trouble.”

The two players are big fans of each other, as well. Donald called Mack dominant, and Mack couldn’t say enough about how overwhelming Donald can be.

“Everything — his speed, power,” Mack said. “Everything that guy does, he does it at a high level. It’s impressive to watch.”

This could be the breakout game both stars are seeking. Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky has struggled all season and is playing behind a reworked offensive line, and the same is true for Rams quarterback Jared Goff. Trubisky gets sacked 2.8 times per game, compared to Goff at 1.8.

It’s striking how similar these teams — initially seen as the front-runners in the NFC — have been this season. Both have hit a desperation point, on the brink of being knocked out of the playoff chase before Thanksgiving, and getting on track might hinge on which star pass rusher busts out of his slump.