Hall of Fame defensive back Charles Woodson played 18 years in the NFL, his last two alongside Khalil Mack on the Raiders. When he talks, Mack listens.
“You don’t get too many years in the NFL, too many chances to win ballgames and too many chances to get to the playoffs and go all the way,” the star outside linebacker said Wednesday, after the Bears kicked off training camp with a light practice. “Charles Woodson told me a long time ago — he was like, ‘You cannot waste time. This [stuff] is very valuable.’
“I understand that now, going into Year 8. And [I’ve] only been in the playoffs three times so far — and losing in the first round every one of them. [Stuff] is very valuable. Time is of the essence.”
That’s true for Mack, who knows he needs to be better. And it certainly applies to the Bears’ defense, which was the NFL’s gold standard in 2018 and then slipped, considerably, in each of the last two seasons.
In 2018, the Bears led the NFL with 36 takeaways. The defense helped to mask offensive flaws that would become plainly apparent the next two years when the Bears ranked 22nd and 25th, respectively, in takeaways. Without a short field, the Bears simply couldn’t score.
When the defense stopped sizzling, so did the Bears.
“The thing about a team sport is everybody’s got to carry each other,” Mack said. “It’s about everybody being of one accord and everybody doing what it takes to win ballgames, whether it’s them scoring 17 points or 14 or 12 or us shutting another team out. Whatever it takes to win a ballgame is definitely what we’ve got to step up and be able to do on defense.”
But the defense won’t improve this year unless Mack does. And vice versa.
Mack was the best edge rusher graded by Pro Football Focus last year, but his sack total was once again disappointing. He totaled nine last year and 8.5 in 2019. In his four seasons before that, he averaged 14.75 — numbers far more befitting the six-year, $141 million contract the Bears handed him in 2018, the highest ever for a defender.
The Bears will be quick to say that Mack’s sack numbers were blunted by constant double- and triple-teams, and that every coach in the NFL spends game week ensuring Mack won’t ruin their game plan. Mack won’t get any relief, though, unless his counterpart scares their opponents. Leonard Floyd didn’t in his first two seasons, and Robert Quinn was one of the biggest, most expensive disappointments in the NFL last year.
Sean Desai, the new defensive coordinator, needs to find ways to unlock the pass rush the Bears are paying so handsomely.
“He’s really creative with what we do on defense,” general manger Ryan Pace said.
Coach Matt Nagy interviewed nine candidates for the coordinator position before hiring Desai, his former safeties coach and first-time play-caller, in January. Nagy heard the candidates suggest ways to free Mack from double-teams, and might borrow a few. He liked Desai’s suggestions, too; expect him to move Mack around the defensive line on obvious pass downs more than the Bears did when Chuck Pagano called plays.
“We’re not going to probably show very much of that [in the preseason],” Nagy said. “But eventually, we will.”
Asked if the defensive struggles through the second half of last season were more a result of scheme or players, Mack tossed the question aside like he did Buccaneers tackle Tristan Wirfs on national TV last year.
“That sounds like excuses,” he said. “But for me personally, I know I can play better. So ultimately, what I can control is what I can control. . . . But what you bring to the table, we’ve got to bring it all together and be what we know we can be — and that’s a great defense.”
Mack refused to blame injuries, too, despite spending more time on the injury report last year than his previous two seasons. He didn’t miss a game, but he was listed with injuries to his knee, back and ankle. A shoulder injury suffered in Week 13 was the worst of them.
“We want to make sure — and [Mack] knows this — that we do everything we can on the prevention side, of the health and their bodies, and Khalil specifically,” Nagy said. “And then making sure we also help him out schematically. He’s going to get double- and triple-[teamed]. How do we help alleviate that with him so that when he does get singled, he can have more chances to win?”
If he does, the takeaways will come. That’s precisely what Nagy wants to see from his defense in the next six weeks.
“A ton of them,” Nagy said. “Everywhere you look, I want that ball coming out. I want fumbles, interceptions, tipped passes. I mean like — when they go to bed at night, just think about intercepting the football, you know? Stripping that football, be like, crazy about it. Everywhere you go. We have to get takeaways this year, and I think we got a lot of guys that are ready for it. . . .
“We went through that a few years ago, and you can see what that can do. That can really help out. But we as coaches, we’ve got to talk about it. You can’t just go out and expect it to happen.”
Mack, on the other hand, doesn’t do the talking.
“Get to the damn quarterback,” he said. “That’s what we got paid to do, coming in and affecting the game by getting to the quarterback and creating turnovers and short fields for the offense. Ultimately, that’s the goal.
“Of course, we’re not satisfied with the result last year. So there’s work to be done. Enough talking. I don’t do that. I don’t like to talk about it.”