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Bears’ investment in pass rusher Robert Quinn pays off for Khalil Mack

It also helps to have Akiem Hicks healthy and back in the middle of the defensive line. The combination of the three, who account for more than one-fourth of the Bears’ payroll, is beginning to heat up.

Khalil Mack sacked Tom Brady three times in Week 5, though one was nullified by penalty.
Khalil Mack sacked Tom Brady three times in Week 5, though one was nullified by penalty.
Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini

It was a questionable move by Bears general manager Ryan Pace — shelling out $70 million for Robert Quinn when he already had Khalil Mack on a $141 million deal and dynamic defensive lineman Akiem Hicks at a total of $48 million.

Granted those are spread over a varying number of years and not all of the money is guaranteed, but more than a quarter-billion on three pass rushers could be considered overkill.

Not so.

Quinn, along with the return of a mostly healthy Hicks, has been exactly what the Bears needed to free up Mack. With Quinn playing his highest snap count against the Buccaneers, the Bears pressured Tom Brady on 43.2% of his drop-backs — the most hectic game he’d had in three years.

Mack was at the center of it with two sacks and a would-be third that was nullified by his roughing-the-passer penalty. On all three, he enjoyed a one-on-one matchup — “The offense has to pick their poison,” Quinn said — as opposed to the double- and triple-teams he saw so often last season.

“It’s opened up some things,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “It’s not like you can just devote all your attention to one dude anymore.

“He’s still gonna garner the attention that he deserves, but . . . if we’re fortunate enough to get him some singles, which is very, very [rare], that’s our goal.”

Whenever Mack lines up with one man to beat, nobody worries about the salary cap.

His two sacks dropped the Bucs into second-and-17 and virtually guaranteed they’d kick field goals, saving the Bears eight points in a game they won 20-19. His negated sack would’ve stuck the Bucs with a second-and-36.

Quinn, who had a strip-sack in his Bears debut and recovered a fumble against the Bucs, played a season-high 58% of the defensive snaps and was on the field for two of those Mack plays.

“We know where [Quinn] plays best, so we are going to try to keep his numbers around that — it’s somewhere just north of half the snaps,” outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “His dominant trait is rushing the passer, and we want to give him as many opportunities to do that as he can.”

Quinn averaged 68% of the snaps with the Cowboys last season, when he was ninth in the NFL with 11½ sacks, and played 58% for the Dolphins in 2018. For his part, he said, “Whenever I’m out there, I should be effective . . . no matter how many snaps.”

The Bears took it slowly with Quinn in his first four games after a disjointed offseason in which he seldom practiced in full because he was working on conditioning. Then he missed the opener with an ankle injury. Those issues and the cancellation of offseason practices disrupted his acclimation to the Bears’ 3-4 defense, which is not his ideal system.

“We want him on the field as much as we can, but we’re gonna be smart with him,” Pagano said. “He’s still playing a little bit of catch-up. That’s not an excuse, but I think he is well on his way to getting this thing down pat completely.”

Next, the Bears turn this tremendous triumvirate loose against Teddy Bridgewater and the Panthers on Sunday. The defensive front should look dramatically different to Bridgewater than it did last season, when he and the Saints hammered the Bears. Hicks was out and middling Leonard Floyd had Quinn’s job.

Nonetheless, Bridgewater has been sacked on only 4.3% of his drop-backs this season, leads the league in completion percentage (73.4) and rarely throws interceptions (28 in 1,352 career drop-backs).

Pace built this defense around Mack, Hicks and Quinn specifically to thwart those kinds of quarterbacks. It’s supposed to be impossible to play at one’s normal level with that trio looming.

That vision is beginning to materialize.