Marveling at Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald has become an annual tradition for the Bears. It’s always some version of, ‘‘We’d better know where he’s at,’’ or calling him ‘‘Superman.’’
Coach Matt Nagy went straight into the recycling bin when he was asked about facing Donald in the season opener Sunday.
‘‘He gets schemed by every team every week, and he still dominates,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘It doesn’t matter. You can scheme two and three [blockers]. That dude is just unbelievable. He breaks double-teams. He’s a game-changer.
‘‘He’s like a running back out there, just flying around on the edge. He’s all over the place. He’s everywhere.’’
Sounds amazing. The Bears have every reason to fear Donald, a six-time All-Pro who last season won his third Defensive Player of the Year award.
But aren’t they supposed to have their own version of that in outside linebacker Khalil Mack?
It looked as though they did in 2018, when Mack obliterated the league for 12.5 sacks, six forced fumbles and a pick-six. He was everything the Bears thought they were getting when they ponied up two first-round draft picks in a trade with the Raiders and committed to a six-year, $141 million contract.
Since then, Mack still has been very good but not great. Not unstoppable. Not Donald.
Mack had 8.5 sacks in 2019 and nine last season, the first times he was held to single digits since he was a rookie. His total of 17.5 in the last two seasons ranks 13th, while his average salary was first among defensive players in 2019 and third last season. (Donald was third with 26 sacks during that time.)
Pro Football Focus graded Mack as the NFL’s best player last season, regardless of position, and consistently has ranked him at or near the top among edge rushers throughout his career. But if that isn’t translating to sacks and takeaways, it isn’t making much difference for the Bears.
It’s no surprise that as Mack’s production has declined, the Bears’ pass defense has slipped. They went from holding opponents to an incredible 72.9 passer rating in 2018 (sixth-best by any team in the last eight seasons) to 85.2 in 2019 and 94.9 last season.
Similarly, the defense has dropped from third in sacks in 2018 to 22nd over the next two seasons combined, and it went from first in takeaways to 25th during the same span.
The point is, Mack can’t do this alone.
The Bears always have known Mack will play well, regardless of whom they put around him. But the way to maximize his impact is to pair him with another ferocious pass rusher, so teams can’t load up with double- and triple-teams against him.
They hoped Leonard Floyd would be that second threat, but he had only four sacks in 2018 and three in 2019. General manager Ryan Pace then bailed on Floyd — he went to the Rams, incidentally, and had a career-high 10.5 sacks last season — in favor of signing veteran Robert Quinn to a five-year, $70 million contract last offseason.
Quinn, now 31, had two sacks in 596 snaps last season, including the playoff game.
The Bears didn’t do much to change the equation around Mack this offseason because they couldn’t afford to. Instead, they still are hoping that Quinn turns it around and that Akiem Hicks continues to be a pass-rushing threat in the middle of the defensive line. Their biggest pass-rushing addition was backup outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, whose five sacks for the Broncos last season would’ve been second to Mack on the Bears.
That means Mack probably will find himself frequently working at a disadvantage yet again. But that shouldn’t stop him.
The Bears paid a huge price because they believed Mack was great, and Mack often has thought back to the advice Hall of Fame cornerback Charles Woodson gave him during his rookie season: Great players find a way to make great plays. Needing better teammates can’t be an excuse.