Bears star Khalil Mack (ankle) misses practice heading toward Saints game

Already facing the potential absence of their best offensive player, Allen Robinson, the Bears have concerns about their defensive star, as well.

SHARE Bears star Khalil Mack (ankle) misses practice heading toward Saints game
Khalil Mack leads the Bears with 5.5 sacks this season.

Khalil Mack leads the Bears with 5.5 sacks this season.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

A relatively minor issue for the Bears all season, injuries suddenly have become an alarming problem. And their best player is the main concern.

Outside linebacker Khalil Mack, the most expensive defensive player in the NFL in terms of salary-cap hits this season, missed practice Wednesday as the Bears began preparing for the Saints. Mack appeared to hurt his left ankle on a tackle attempt in the third quarter Monday night against the Rams.

Although Mack only has missed two games in his seven-year career, the accumulation of injuries is growing. He has been playing through knee pain all season, prompting the Bears to limit his work in practice, and was out part of last week with back trouble.

Mack at partial strength isn’t enough for the Bears, considering that, financially and strategically, they have more riding on him than any other player.

Their $70 million splurge on fellow outside linebacker Robert Quinn in the offseason was a direct effort to create more one-on-one opportunities for Mack after opposing offenses did everything possible to slow him down last season, when he had 8½ sacks, his lowest total since his rookie year.

Mack has been more effective this season with 5½ sacks and has played 85% of the defensive snaps.

Additional injury woes

Mack and wide receiver Allen Robinson (concussion), the Bears’ best players on each side of the ball, are only two of their injury worries.

An offensive line that’s already struggling was missing center Cody Whitehair on Wednesday because of a calf injury, and running back and special-teams standout Cordarrelle Patterson (quadriceps) also was out.

Pro Bowl safety Eddie Jackson hurt his knee on a noncontact play against the Rams and returned to the game but was limited in practice. Tight end Cole Kmet (back) and special-teams mainstay Sherrick McManis (hamstring) also were partial participants.

Hicks exasperated

The most penalized player in the NFL is Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks. It has been an extremely trying season for Hicks, who has played well but drawn a league-high seven penalties (two declined) and been fined $15,000. He was hit with unsportsmanlike-conduct and roughing-the-passer penalties against the Rams.

“This is the most I’ve been penalized in my career,” he tweeted. “I’ll never complain, I’ll just adjust my game. But one thing I won’t do is not play hard. It’s part of why I fell in love with the game. The struggle, the hustle, the battle. I’m still in love.”

Potential punt returner

New addition Dwayne Harris, a veteran wide receiver and return man, is more than merely an extra body for the practice squad. One of the pandemic-related rule changes this season allows teams to promote practice-squad players to the active roster for a game, then return them to the practice squad the next day without cutting them.

That means Harris could be the Bears’ answer for their punt-return problems.

Veteran wide receiver Ted Ginn, who had not returned punts since 2017, has been handling that chore since Tarik Cohen tore his anterior cruciate ligament. Ginn irked coach Matt Nagy by letting two punts go against the Rams that Nagy thought he should’ve returned, and his line for the season is 24 yards on five returns.

The Bears apparently have no other viable options on their active roster. Wide receiver Anthony Miller is a liability when it comes to catching punts cleanly, and Patterson has said, “I don’t return punts, man.”

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