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First-and-10: Khalil Mack-led Bears defense putting the heat on Mitch Trubisky

When the Bears suddenly, stunningly acquired Khalil Mack, coach Matt Nagy was asked whether Mack’s arrival put more pressure or less pressure on quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

“Neither,” he said. “I don’t think Mitchell cares one way or the other. I think what he does care about is that he’s on our team and he’s not chasing after 10. But other than that, it’s not going to change how Mitchell plays.”

Well, with all due respect to Nagy’s response, we have our answer three weeks later: It absolutely has put more pressure on Trubisky, whether he feels it or not. In fact, with Mack’s impact even greater than anticipated, the pressure on Trubisky is greater than ever and is unlikely to abate anytime soon.

Mack already has helped elevate the Bears’ defense to another level. The Bears lead the NFL in sacks per pass play, are tied for second in takeaways with eight and are fifth in yards allowed. With two touchdowns — on interceptions by Mack and Prince Amukamara — the Bears are third in the NFL in net points allowed (13.7 per game). And you can argue that, with Mack and rookie linebacker Roquan Smith still getting acclimated to Vic Fangio’s defense, they’re just warming up.

Bears QB Mitch Trubisky had a 73.5 passer rating against the Cardinals. | Rick Scuteri/AP

Bears QB Mitch Trubisky had a 73.5 passer rating against the Cardinals. | Rick Scuteri/AP

Things often don’t work out the way you think, but at the rate the defense is progressing, the heat is on Trubisky to avoid becoming what would be Matt Nagy’s worst nightmare — an impediment to playoff contention. Because Nagy is not going to turn to Chase Daniel — whose performance against the Chiefs in the preseason indicated a much better grasp of Nagy’s offense than Trubisky has — even if he thinks he gives the Bears the best chance to win. Everything Nagy does is to give Mitch Trubisky the best chance to succeed.

The glacial pace of Trubisky’s development is disconcerting. The training wheels appear more evident when they should be undetectable. Nagy and the defensive players are saying all the right things about the disparity between the offense and the defense.

But the pressure is on — Mack’s presence is just one more opportunity for Trubisky to show he not only can take the heat, but also respond to it.

In a year when the NFL literally has no idea what constitutes roughing the passer, the most impressive facet to the Bears’ fast start on defense is this: they’ve had 22 quarterback hits, including a league-leading 14 sacks, without a roughing-the-passer penalty. Even Bears fans have to feel sorry for Clay Matthews. Well, they don’t have to, but they should. What’s happening to Matthews is a travesty unbecoming a professional sports league.

In fact, the Bears have had just three defensive penalties — the fewest in the NFL — for a combined 15 yards in three games. They are the only team that has yet to be penalized for either roughing the passer, unnecessary  roughness or pass interference.

Their three penalties were: cornerback Amukamara (illegal contact against the Packers); Jonathan Bullard (illegal use of hands against the Cardinals) and Mack (offsides against the Cardinals).

Amukamara’s came on a third-down play that led to a touchdown when the Bears were leading the Seahawks 17-3 in the fourth quarter. The most costly arguably was Mack’s offsides that nullified Eddie Jackson’s 35-yard interception return — and a Bears (-6) cover.

The Mack-led defense already is producing new heroes, including cornerback Bryce Callahan and rookie defensive tackle Bilal Nichols. But veteran cornerback Sherrick McManis was a particularly unlikely — and deserving — one. McManis had a diving interception in the fourth quarter and sacked rookie Josh Rosen to close out the victory against the Cardinals. He played just five defensive snaps.

The 30-year-old McManis, the only Bears player remaining from the Lovie Smith era,  has been a special-teams standout in all six seasons with the Bears. But until Sunday none of his experience on defense was productive enough to warrant a second look. The Northwestern product has played 45 snaps or less on defense in five of his six previous seasons. After starting four games in the first half of the 2015 season, McManis played just 49 total snaps on defense in 2016 (18) and 2017 (31).

But it literally couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. McManis is the ultimate team player who embraces his role on special teams.

“He had only five snaps and made all those plays — that was pretty impressive,” defensive end Akiem Hicks said.

Speaking of good guys, kudos to former Bears center Hroniss Grasu, who signed with the Ravens this week. Grasu, a third-round pick in 2015 who started eight games as a rookie before tearing an ACL in training camp in 2016, was the odd man out on the Bears’ offensive line this preseason and waived following the cutdown to 53.

6  The Bears’ defense has room for growth as Roquan Smith gets more experience. But Leonard Floyd could provide an additional boost when he is fully recovered from the broken hand he suffered in the preseason. Floyd clearly has been hampered by the club and even the smaller cast on his hand in the first three games. At full strength, he should be a difference-making threat opposite Mack.

7  With cornerbacks Amukamara and Marcus Cooper recovering from hamstring injuries, the Bears might have to find out how quickly undrafted rookie Kevin Toliver learns. Toliver, a former five-star prospect from LSU, was picked on by Sam Bradford and Josh Rosen in 22 snaps against the Cardinals.

He bit on rookie Christian Kirk’s double move and was burned for a 32-yard gain early in the fourth quarter with the Bears trailing 14-13 but was bailed out two plays later when Mack forced a fumble that Danny Trevathan recovered. But he can’t wait for a second chance. The kid’s not lacking for confidence.

“As long as I’m out there, I know they’re going to throw my way,” Toliver said. “I just have to be ready. I embrace the challenge. I love that challenge. I love this stage of my career. Just guys [testing] me. Got to make a name for myself.”

A subtle disappointment from the victory over the Cardinals: With rookie Anthony Miller limited by a shoulder injury, Kevin White still was virtually invisible — just 12 snaps and zero targets. Josh Bellamy, who played four snaps in the first two games, played 18 snaps against the Cardinals and had one catch for two yards.

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Josh McCown Ex-Bear of the Week Award: Saints wide receiver Cam Meredith, playing for the first time since suffering a torn ACL and MCL in the preseason with the Bears last year, caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees in the Saints’ 43-37 overtime victory against the Falcons.

It was his only target in 34 snaps in the game, but a significant moment nonetheless for the former St. Joseph and Illinois State star. With his knack for getting open, Meredith should flourish with Brees in that offense.

10 Bear-ometer: 8-8 — vs. Buccaneers (L); at Dolphins (L); vs. Patriots (W); vs. Jets (W); at Bills (L); vs. Lions (W); vs. Vikings (L); at Lions (L); at Giants (W); vs. Rams (L); vs. Packers (W); at 49ers (W); at Vikings (L).