On the sideline at the epicenter of a magical moment in Bears history during the season opener at historic Lambeau Field, Bears coach Matt Nagy was thinking the same thing you were thinking when Khalil Mack made his stunning debut.
“I just said, ‘Holy hell.’ I did. I couldn’t believe it,” Nagy said. “I mean . . . I know he was working out, but we didn’t know . . . he just showed up and then had a pick-six and he laid on the ground and got tackled by everybody. It was surreal. That’s a half that I’ll never forget, along with the second half.”
Eight days after being acquired by the Bears in a trade with the Raiders, Mack had a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception return for a touchdown in the first half as the Bears took a stunning 17-0 lead. But the Bears blew a 20-0 lead and lost 24-23, overcome by the incredible will of Aaron Rodgers.
“All I can remember now is that we didn’t win the game, ultimately,” Mack said. “You do those things to be able to just win the game. That’s all I can think about that game every time I look at the highlights.”
Even in defeat, Mack’s debut was a calling card that signaled the dawn of a new day for the Bears, especially on defense. He turned a top-10 defense into the best in the NFL.
“He’s a generational talent — if not the top, than a top-two pass rusher in the league right now,” Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “Besides what he brings on the field with his own play, he gives confidence to everyone around him. They step up their game to reach his level. You can see it. It’s clear as day.”
Indeed, Mack was such a big hit because he raised the bar for an already-talented defense.
“You look at our defense and how everybody did individually, and it’s like Mack is the common denominator,” cornerback Prince Amukamara said. “Since he came on the team, everyone had their best year ever. Everyone had honors. You see Eddie [Jackson], Kyle [Fuller], Akiem [Hicks], even [Leonard] Floyd, Roquan [Smith]. Look at [Adrian] Amos’ contract. Look at Bryce [Callahan’s contract]. We’re all reaping those benefits, and hopefully it continues.”
That’s the great expectation for the Bears’ defense heading into the opener against the Packers on Thursday night at Soldier Field. With Mack leading the way, the Bears’ defense feels like a well-oiled machine.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Mack said. “Camaraderie. Understanding what the team is going to do when it’s fourth-and-one; what Roquan is going to do when its fourth-and-one; what Leonard is going to do when it’s third-and-10. Just understanding who is around you and what guys are capable of around you. And we’re going to make it that much better.”
Mack learned a lot about the Bears-Packers rivalry last year in the one-point loss and a 24-17 victory in which he had 2½ sacks against Rodgers.
“Aaron Rodgers, man,” Mack said. “It’s always fun going against one of the best in the game. It just ups that level of competition.”
Rodgers has always respected the challenge of facing the Bears’ defense. But adding Mack has returned that challenge to an Urlacher-era level.
“There’s a few players in the league you have to account for on every single snap,” Rodgers said. “Adding him to a group that already has a great pass rusher in Floyd, very disruptive interior guys in Akiem and Eddie [Goldman] and then backed up by very solid inside linebackers and a great back end — you’re just adding a chip to a pretty good group already. Very disruptive. High motor. He’s one of those guys you have to account for [on every snap].”