Bears

Mack Effect: Bears’ rising ‘D’ creating unsung playmakers, like Bilal Nichols

Bears rookie defensive lineman Bilal Nichols is making so many plays, it’s hard to keep them straight.

“I can’t remember which is which,” Bears defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said when asked about the back-to-back impact plays Nichols made in the Bears’ 48-10 victory Sunday against the Buccaneers. “I think he had the half-sack and then the next play he had a [tackle for loss]. Both of them are really good plays.”

Nichols indeed made back-to-back plays against the Buccaneers. He shared a sack of Jameis Winston with defensive end Roy Robertson-Harris for a seven-yard loss. On the next play, he showed off his explosiveness by beating guard Ali Marpet on an inside pinch to drop running back Ronald Jones for a four-yard loss.

A week earlier, the 6-4, 290-pound Nichols made an even bigger play, stopping Cardinals running back Chase Edmonds for a three-yard loss on a third-and-two with the Bears protecting a 16-14 lead with 1:55 left.

Bears rookie defensive lineman Bilal Nichols (left) tackles Cardinals running back Chase Edmonds for a three-yard loss on third-and-two with less than 2:00 to play in the fourth quarter and the Bears protecting a 16-14 lead. | Ralph Freso/AP photo

Nichols is one of several unsung players who have flourished in a Bears defense that is riding the wave of Khalil Mack’s immense impact.

There’s no doubt it starts with Mack. The All-Pro outside linebacker was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September — a particularly impressive achievement considering he did not participate in training camp or play a down in the preseason as a contract holdout with the Raiders and didn’t even join the Bears until Labor Day.

But the residual impact of his fast start has been obvious. The Mack-fueled rise of the Bears’ defense under Vic Fangio has made everybody a potential playmaker — from proven veterans such as inside linebacker Danny Trevathan and cornerback Prince Amukamara to up-and-coming players such as safety Eddie Jackson to undrafted free agents such as nickel back Bryce Callahan and Robertson-Harris to rookies such as Nichols, a fifth-round pick from Delaware who has an 80-inch wingspan.

“Nichols is just doing his job,” Rodgers said. “He understands what we’re trying to get accomplished. He’s playing the right technique, and when he has opportunities to make plays, he’s making them.”

The 6-7, 294-pound Robertson-Harris, who wasn’t drafted in 2016, is a particularly intriguing prospect because of his size and athleticism. He showed improvement in the second half last season and even more so far this season.

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“He’s made a jump [from last season], but he’s still growing,” Rodgers said. “[Against the Buccaneers], he had a stretch play to his side — he stuffed that block. It ended up being a three-yard gain. But that’s growth right there — being able to stuff the block, shed, make the play on the ball. And he just continues to get better. He wants to be great. You see it with his practice habits. He will go as far as his talent will allow him to.”

The 5-9, 191-pound Callahan’s production isn’t a surprise. An undrafted free agent from Rice in 2015, Callahan has started 19 games in his first three seasons with the Bears. He had two interceptions and returned a punt 59 yards for a touchdown last season.

He had an interception against the Cardinals and a tackle for loss on a bubble screen in each of the last two games, including the first play from scrimmage against the Buccaneers.

“The guy diagnoses things very quickly,” secondary coach Ed Donatell said. “That’s part of his talent, part of his preparation and study habits. He can get to plays quickly. He has a knack, but on some it’s just preparation. This kid works hard in the film room and in practice, and it [carries over] to the game.”