With the Bears’ slim playoff hopes on the line, Khalil Mack and the defense need a huge finish to the regular season, starting with Thursday night’s game against the Cowboys at Soldier Field.
And while the wear-and-tear of a 16-game NFL season is working against them, Mack and the Bears’ defense have a couple of factors in their favor: Linebacker Roquan Smith is playing at a high level and picking up steam after a midseason lull, and defensive end Akiem Hicks is on schedule to return next week against the Packers.
While Mack makes everyone around him better, elite playmakers make Mack better. And with Smith in a slump earlier after missing the Vikings game for a personal issue and Hicks out since Week 5 with a dislocated left elbow he suffered against the Raiders in London, Mack’s production has dropped.
An energized Smith and a healthy Hicks bode well for Mack, whose numbers are good but not great — 6½ sacks, five forced fumbles, five tackles for loss, four pass breakups and no interceptions. Though the defense has not been a major culprit in the Bears’ 6-6 record, the pressure is on Mack to step up in the final month and make a difference.
Mack has played in every game this season after missing two games last year (and being hampered by an ankle injury in two others). He has played 750 snaps in 12 games, which is on pace for an even 1,000. That’s more than he played last season (755) but fewer than he had played in his four previous seasons with the Raiders, when he averaged 1,057 snaps per season.
“You [don’t have] a choice but to be 100 percent,” Mack said. “Mentally, that’s going to be huge for everybody at this point. [I’m] just looking forward to the challenge. It’s not really making [any] excuses about this and that. Just going out and looking to get a win.”
Mack has a history of consistent production in his five previous NFL seasons. In fact, he has 21½ sacks in 24 regular-season games in December and January.
And with Smith on the upswing, Mack should get his opportunities. Smith had 15 tackles and two sacks against the Lions on Thanksgiving Day.
“He plays with a chip on his shoulder,” Mack said. “It’s a beautiful thing. I heard him talking a little bit last game, and I never heard him talk like that before. So he needs to keep doing it.”
With dependable linebacker Danny Trevathan out for the fourth consecutive game with an elbow injury, Smith’s emergence has given the Bears a boost.
“It’s huge,” Mack said. “Like I say, when he plays well, we play well as a defense. I’m looking forward to see what he does Thursday.”
The Bears have long-shot playoff hopes. But if they can beat the Cowboys — they are three-point underdogs at home — the expected return of Hicks against the Packers on Dec. 15 at Lambeau Field figures to stoke the defense and breathe life into an impossible dream.
“It’s always fun when you’ve got ‘Mufasa’ out there,” Mack said of the 6-5, 332-pound Hicks. “I call him ‘Mufasa.’ That’s my guy. Real special player. Not only that, he’s a real special person. Just having him around . . . was huge. But having him on the field was even more huge.”