Khalil Mack, Bears’ ‘D’ ‘can’t wait’ for shot at redemption

The Bears’ defense has faltered in recent weeks but still has hope of regaining its form on the big stage of the playoffs. “Over the course of a week, you’d be surprised what we can do,” Mack said.

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Bears linebacker Khalil Mack (52, huddling with the defense against the Jaguars on Dec. 27) leads the Bears with nine sacks and also has 11 tackles-for-loss, 12 quarterback pressures, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, one interception and a safety this season.

Bears linebacker Khalil Mack (52, huddling with the defense against the Jaguars on Dec. 27) leads the Bears with nine sacks and also has 11 tackles-for-loss, 12 quarterback pressures, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, one interception and a safety this season.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

For a Bears defense that has lost its luster — dropping from first in the NFL in scoring in 2018 to fourth last year to 14th this season — the big stage of Sunday’s wild-card game against the Saints is a chance for redemption.

“You took the words right out of my mouth,” outside linebacker Khalil Mack said. “It is what it is. You have the opportunity to redeem. So that’s the only way I can look it. It’s going to be a positive. And I can’t wait.”

Even Mack’s star has dipped a bit during a Pro Bowl season in which he led the Bears with nine sacks. The Bears are 17th in the NFL in sacks per pass play and 24th in interceptions with 10. The lack of difference-making plays is mystifying for a team with established playmakers. But one big playoff game can mitigate the criticism.

“It’s a lot of things I can say to look back on those things,” Mack said when asked about the missed opportunities that led to the dearth of takeaways. “But it would be wrong of me to do [that] because we have an opportunity right in front of us. [We’re] blessed to be in the position we’re in, just to make the most of that and use the different things we have learned to make us better.”

The Bears’ defense has allowed 30 touchdowns in the last 10 games after allowing just nine in the first six. It will take a supreme performance to reverse the downward trend. But it’s not like the Bears don’t have that in them. They had three chances for interceptions against Aaron Rodgers last week and missed all of them.

“You just look at the film,” Mack said. “There are a lot of professionals in this building, especially on the defensive side of the ball. We are looking forward to the challenge.”

Injuries could be the one catch in executing that plan. Linebacker Roquan Smith suffered an elbow injury against the Packers, did not practice again Thursday and might not play against the Saints. Rookie cornerback Jaylon Johnson has missed the last three games with a shoulder injury. Veteran slot cornerback Buster Skrine has missed the last four because of a concussion.

While Rodgers and the Packers exposed the Bears’ secondary depth last week — an ominous result with Drew Brees up next — the possible loss of Smith looms as the most damaging. Smith arguably has been the Bears’ best defensive player this season, with a team-high 139 tackles and 18 tackles for loss, plus four sacks, six quarterback pressures and two interceptions.

Josh Woods replaced Smith last week against the Packers. After a challenging game in an emergency role, Woods would need to take a huge step just to reach the Nick Kwiatkoski level of fill-in performance.

“We’re still holding out hope [Smith will play],” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “But whether he’s there or not, it’s always next man up. The guys that came in, they’ll be better for the experience, they’ll play better. They have to play better. But we’re still hopeful on all those guys.”

Even at full strength, the challenge is immense against a balanced Saints offense with a Hall of Fame quarterback and likely two of its best weapons back in running back Alvin Kamara and wide receiver Michael Thomas.

“It’s an understanding that has to be some of the best defense we have ever played,” Mack said. “And then in Chicago Bears history, understanding what’s at stake. You have to play at a high level and can’t really make any excuses. All we’re looking forward to is the opportunity. We have to make the most of it.”

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