Khalil Mack didn’t want to talk about the past on Friday. He rarely does, even when he’s asked to describe perhaps the best half of a game in his career.
In the first 30 minutes of the 2018 season opener against the Packers — eight days after the Bears traded for him, and before he knew the entire playbook — Mack claimed Lambeau Field for himself. He recovered his own strip-sack and later returned an interception for a touchdown, all before halftime, in an eventual 24-23 loss.
His coach’s two-word review of Mack’s first game with the Bears was perfect.
“Holy hell,” Matt Nagy said.
Ready to return to Lambeau on Sunday, Mack had little time to relive his past.
“That’s a blur. That’s a blur,” the star outside linebacker said. “That’s last year. It’s a new year. We’re going to go in there and try to get a win.”
But what about the interception of Packers backup quarterback DeShone Kizer, when Mack caught the ball at the Packers’ 27 and ran past three defenders for a touchdown? Was anyone going to get in his way?
“Apparently not,” Mack said.
Mack doesn’t want to give a history lesson, but it’s instructive in explaining precisely why he’ll line up Sunday in navy blue and white. The Bears traded for him — and made him the highest-paid defensive player of all time — because of the Packers’ starting quarterback.
The Bears wanted to make their defense Aaron Rodgers-proof.
“We can talk about [Rodgers] specifically,” Mack said. “But ultimately, that’s the whole point in bringing me here — to be in position where you’re fighting to make a playoff push. That’s where we’re at right now.”
It started when the Bears drafted outside linebacker Leonard Floyd ninth overall in 2016, hoping his freakish athleticism would help them track the slippery Rodgers twice a year. That strategy went into the stratosphere last year when Bears general manager Ryan Pace traded two first-round picks and more to the Raiders for Mack. Bears ownership, in turn, gave Mack $141 million over six years.
Against the Packers, Mack has proven the Bears’ instincts to be right.
Despite being expected to play only a limited number of snaps in the 2018 opener, he became the first player in 36 years to have a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, an interception and a touchdown in the same half. (A hobbled Rodgers rallied the Packers from a 20-point deficit to win.)
In the Week 15 rematch last December, Mack had 2½ sacks and three quarterback hits, and the Bears clinched the NFC North. In this year’s opener against the Packers, a 10-3 loss, he forced a fumble.
Mack hasn’t been as dominant this season as he was last year, totaling 7½ sacks. But he has two sacks over the last three games — all Bears wins — and stands to benefit Sunday from Pro Bowl defensive lineman Akiem Hicks’ likely return from injured reserve.
Maybe the Packers will think twice before throwing double- and triple-teams at Mack, the way opponents have the last 10 weeks.
“A man like Akiem,” outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said, “requires four hands and four eyes at all times.”
With the Bears’ playoff lives on the line, Mack knows he needs to be special Sunday.
Rodgers, he suspects, might pull that greatness out of him.
“His knack to go out and win games — you can see it on film,” Mack said. “He just puts the ball in the right spots for guys at times. I don’t really see that a lot. Understanding the special talent he has. Ultimately, understanding the challenge it is to play against him.
“And it’s fun. He brings the best out of you as well.”