If you had just spent most of an evening staring across the line at a fire-breathing Khalil Mack, you might forget what down it is, too. You might forget your name, your dog’s name and the name of the game you’re playing.
So, let’s cut Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady some slack for thinking it was fourth down late in a 20-19 loss to the Bears on Thursday night. Brady had just thrown an incomplete pass on fourth-and-sixth, and the ball and the ballgame were the Bears’. Tom Terrific suddenly became Tom Amnesiac. With an uncertain look on his normally confident face, he held up four fingers on his right hand. It was four fingers as a question mark. Fourth down? Nope.
Mack and a talented defense have the capability to do that sort of thing to an opponent. It’s just that we hadn’t seen it nearly as much as we should have in the first four games of this season and most of last season. Let’s be clear: Even when Mack isn’t putting up sacks, he’s disruptive. And even when the Bears’ defense isn’t making big plays, it’s still very good.
But Thursday night showed what a violent attack can do to an opposing offense. There was a point in the game when, having been knocked down again and again, Brady screamed at his offensive line on the sidelines. No future Hall of Fame quarterback should have to take that much abuse, and no 43-year-old quarterback should be able to get up from that kind of pounding.
Where have these Bears been? And where has this Mack been?
Four days before, he had dropped what looked like a certain interception against the Colts. It seemed to have roused him from his catnap, which is to say it seemed to have embarrassed the hell out of him. He was a man on a mission against the Buccaneers.
If the Bears’ pass rush can be as good in 2020 as it was in 2018, it will put a lot less pressure on the Bears’ offense. It might make us less obsessed with Nick Foles’ strengths and weaknesses. If it had arrived earlier, it might have saved Mitch Trubisky’s starting job for another week or two. All right, probably not, but still.
All of this begins with Mack. When he’s plaguing the opposing quarterback, it opens the door for mistakes, which can lead to fumbles, interceptions and feelings of inadequacy. When he’s fully engaged, he’s a demoralizer. In the third quarter Thursday, he sacked Brady and then, still tangled with 320-pound Tristan Wirfs, threw down the offensive with one arm. Mack weighs 60 pounds less than Wirfs.
Who does that sort of thing? No one.
“I can’t explain that, man,’’ Mack said. “It just happens. It just happens. I play the game very physical, and it just so happened that he was holding on to me, and I had to get him off.’’
Like a grade-schooler unburdening himself of a backpack.
He finished with two sacks, three quarterback hits, two tackles for loss and a deflected pass. More of that guy, please.
At one point, with Mack on all fours and staring at the man he had just knocked down, Brady could only roll his eyes. He was in the middle of a nightmare.
“I can’t really say what he was going through,” Mack said of Brady. “I just know that we smelled a little blood in the water.”
The Bears have not been taken seriously this season. Not when they were 3-0 against weak competition. Not when they were 3-1 after the loss to the Colts. They’ll be taken seriously if the defense continues to play the way it did against the Bucs.
“Man, this defense, man, these guys, it’s a mentality or whatever,’’ Mack said. “When our backs are against the wall, there’s a lot of doubt out there, we believe in each other and we know in those moments that we can count on one another.’’
When he gets doubled-teamed, which is often, it should give teammates the opportunity to get to the quarterback. That hadn’t happened much in the first four games, in which the Bears had a combined eight sacks. Mack had only 1½ sacks in those games.
“There’s no letting up from this group,’’ he said after the victory Thursday night. “I’m going to do my best to make sure of that.’’
If he starts with himself, that will probably be more than enough.