At the dawn of the 2021 season, Rams defen-sive tackle Aaron Donald is the favorite to win the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year Award. Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey, depending on where you look, has the ninth- or 10th-best odds.
Somewhere in between, around No. 7, sits Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack. And he’ll be looking to prove a point Sunday night in Los Angeles when he stares across the sideline and sees Donald and Ramsey.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” Mack said Friday. “I mean, there’s extra juice every game to feel like that. This game is no different, but it’s also more than that with those two other guys on the other side of the ball as well.
“It’s always humbling to go into games like this, understanding what’s at stake, and ultimately just trying to win a ballgame.”
A star performance in prime time can do a lot to swing the court of public opinion — even for Mack, the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year.
“It doesn’t matter, talking about being an All-Pro in the past or being the Defensive Player of the Year in the past,” Mack said. “It’s about showing [who] I am and playing at that standard that I set for myself.”
That standard is so high that the last two seasons have felt like disappointments. Mack had 8 ½ sacks in 2019 and nine in 2020. Twelve players have more sacks than his 17 ½ over the last two seasons, including Donald, whose 26 rank third during that period.
Mack appeared more on the injury report last year than in his previous two years with the Bears. He hurt his knee, back, ankle and, most notably, his shoulder in Week 13 — but never missed a game. The Bears have vowed to be careful with him during game weeks; he was limited in practice Wednesday and Thursday because of a groin injury but was a full participant Friday.
“I’m gonna be out there for my guys and make sure I’m healthy,” Mack said. “Healthy enough to be out there on Sunday.”
This year, though, it’s more complicated than that. Mack wore a mask indoors when meeting with reporters Friday — a requirement for players who are not vaccinated.
Reminded he can’t just gut out a potential positive COVID-19 test the way he has past injuries, Mack agreed.
“But that’s also another thing where, off the field, you’ve got to protect yourself and understand when you’re putting yourself in situations where you can possibly catch something like COVID,” he said.
It could become a problem for the Bears if Mack is sick at some point during the season. Unvaccinated players must isolate for 10 days if they contract the virus and must stay away for five if they’re ruled a close contact of an infected person. Vaccinated players are far less restricted by league rules. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman, who was not vaccinated, missed 10 days during training camp.
Mack has been trying to motivate his teammates since long before camp. He preached defensive goals throughout the offseason, said coach Matt Nagy, who heard them second-hand.
“He’s not a man of many words,” Nagy said. “But when he says something, he’s one of those guys that it totally multiplies and magnifies what he’s saying.”
The Rams have spent all week game-planning around Mack, just as the Bears have with Donald.
“Thirty-two teams around the league would love to have [Mack] as their elite pass rusher,” Rams offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell said.
Mack will leave it to others to compare him and Donald — and handicap the Defensive Player of the Year race.
“That’s something I won’t talk about — I show you,” he said. “I’ll show you better than I can tell you.”