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Mack attack is back to spark Bears’ defensive resurgence

With Khalil Mack leading the way, the Bears’ defense atoned for two bad games with a vintage performance — seven sacks, a fumble and a safety — against a short-handed Texans offense.

Bears linebacker Khalil Mack recovers a fumble after stripping the ball from Texans running back Duke Johnson in the first quarter Sunday at Soldier Field. The Bears won, 36-7.
Bears linebacker Khalil Mack recovers a fumble after stripping the ball from Texans running back Duke Johnson in the first quarter Sunday at Soldier Field. The Bears won, 36-7.
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

As the star player on a suddenly reeling defense, Khalil Mack literally took matters into his own hands Sunday.

On a run up the middle by Texans running back Duke Johnson early in the first quarter, Mack fended off a block by right tackle Tytus Howard and ripped the ball from Johnson, bobbled it and fell on the ball as it hit the ground for a recovery.

The offense failed to score on the ensuing drive, but the tone for the Bears’ 36-7 rout was set. Mack later sacked quarterback Deshaun Watson for a safety that gave the Bears a 16-7 lead. And he batted a pass by Watson into the air for a near interception, with Watson reaching to break up the jump ball.

It was the vintage Mack the Bears’ defense has been missing. He had gone four consecutive games without a sack and was shut out on the stat sheet last week against the Lions.

“He got back to himself,” said linebacker Danny Trevathan, who chipped in with 10 tackles. “He was back there trying to wreak havoc. It’s good for him because a lot of us feed off him. The whole team feeds off him when he makes big plays. That’s what we expect him to do. He had a big game and he came out with the mindset all week and executed the plays.”

Not surprisingly, the defense indeed followed his lead in shutting down Watson and the Texans’ short-handed offense. The Bears had seven sacks — as many as they had in the previous five games. They held the Texans to 263 yards and contained Watson, who had a 101.9 passer rating that didn’t reflect his impact on the game. He threw for 219 yards and a touchdown but was under siege most of the day.

For the record, the Texans’ 16th-ranked offense was without its three top receivers — Will Fuller (suspension), Brandin Cooks (foot, neck injuries) and Randall Cobb (toe injury) — and top running back David Johnson (reserve/COVID-19 list). But the Bears’ defense took advantage of the opportunity and looked like its old self.

“That’s just the standard we hold ourselves to — the way we actually played,” said linebacker Roquan Smith, who had a team-high 12 tackles and two sacks. “But it’s not just about the game. We’re going to enjoy this one, but it’s about doing every game … that’s the standard we hold ourselves to every week. We have to do that.”

While Mack made the big plays, Akiem Hicks all too typically did the dirty work in the background. Hicks helped set the tone on the Texans’ first drive with a stuff of Duke Johnson for no gain and a pressure on Watson on a third-and-seven incompletion that forced a punt. And Hicks’ stop of Johnson put Mack in position for the strip on the fumble.

With cornerback Jaylon Johnson forcing Watson out of bounds a yard short of a first down on third-and-four, the Bears stopped the Texans on their first three drives and built a 14-0 lead. When Watson responded with a touchdown drive and had a chance to tie the score, Bilal Nichols sacked Watson for a 10-yard loss to the Texans’ 9-yard line, and Mack sacked Watson on the next play for a safety that gave the Bears a 16-7 lead. That’s all they needed as the Bears built a 30-7 halftime lead.

The Bears poured it on in the second half. On fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Smith sacked backup quarterback A.J. McCarron — playing because Watson got hit on his funny bone — and the Bears took over.

Brent Urban, Mario Edwards, Smith and Edwards again sacked Watson to turn out the lights.