Marveling at Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald has become an annual tradition for the Bears. It’s always some version of, “We better know where he’s at,” or calling him Superman, and coach Matt Nagy went straight into the recycling bin when 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 the six-time all-pro who just won his third Defensive Player of the Year award.
But aren’t they supposed to have their own version of that in Khalil Mack?
It looked like 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 picks in a trade with the Raiders and committed to a six-year, $141 million contract.
Since then, Mack has still been very good.
But not great. Not unstoppable. Not Donald.
He 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 over the last two seasons ranks 13th, while his average salary was first among defensive players in ’19 and third in ’20. Donald was third at 26.
Pro Football Focus graded Mack as the NFL’s best player last season, regardless of position, and has consistently 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 the next season and 94.9 last season.
The defense has similarly dropped from third in sacks in 2018 to 22nd over the next two seasons combined, and it went from first in takeaways to 25th over the same spans.
The point is that Mack can’t do this alone.
The Bears have always known he’ll play well regardless of who they put around him, but the way to maximize him is to pair him with another ferocious pass rusher so teams can’t load up with double- and triple-teams on Mack.
They hoped Leonard Floyd would be that second threat, but he had just four sacks in 2018 and three in ’19. Bears general manager Ryan Pace 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 year.
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 season. They couldn’t afford to. Instead, they’re still hoping Quinn turns it around and 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 only to Mack on the Bears.
That means Mack will probably 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 has often thought back to advice Hall of Famer 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.