JJ Stankevitz

How can the Bears make Khalil Mack even better in 2019?

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USA Today

How can the Bears make Khalil Mack even better in 2019?

In the midst of Khalil Mack’s All-Pro debut season with the Bears, then-outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley offered a thought of how his star pupil could be even better in 2019. With the benefit of a full offseason of OTAs and training camp, the Bears would be able to move Mack around more within their defense, which would present tougher challenges for opposing coaching staffs trying to gameplan for him. 

Staley left for the Denver Broncos along with Vic Fangio back in January. But a new coaching staff has the same thought: There’s more to what Mack can do than we saw in 2018. And 2018 was pretty impressive. 

“There will be opportunities for him to do a variety of things from a variety of different alignments,” senior defensive assistant/outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “Freedom, he has a little bit. But variety he has plenty. There’s plenty of things that we’re going to try to use him for and to do with him that allow him to showcase the things he does well.”

The No. 1 thing Mack does well, to boil it down, is wreck a game. Every head coach and offensive coordinator around the league has to develop a plan for limiting those game-wrecking abilities. It meant quick throws, the kind that leave the quarterback’s hand before Mack can even set up a pass-rushing move, for some teams. For others, it meant offering extra pass protection support through committing a tight end, running back or both to slowing him down. Mack still found a way to total 12 1/2 sacks and 73 total pressures, all while an ankle injury effectively wiped out four games in the middle of the season. 

“You’ve got a phenomenal, phenomenal athlete, all that stuff” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “He’s a great football player, but he’s a better teammate. And he’s a better person. He doesn’t say much, but actions speak louder than words. Again, he’s a great worker. He’s a smart guy. He picks things up. Not gonna say much, but out here on the football field he’s going to lead by example.” 

As the 2018 season progressed, the Bears felt more comfortable with having Mack play on the left and right during games, not one spot exclusively (in the season’s first four weeks, 166 of Mack’s snaps came on the left and 25 came on the right, per Pro Football Focus). By the playoffs, the Bears were able to strategically use Mack on either side of their defense to try to counter-act the scheming done by Eagles coach Doug Pederson (Mack played 26 snaps on the left and 26 on the right in that game, per Pro Football Focus). 

But both the previous and current coaching staffs envision Mack being able to do more than just line up on either side of the formation. And Monachino has experience in figuring out the best way to create that variety he talked about, too: He was Terrell Suggs’ position coach in 2011 when the Baltimore Ravens edge rusher won defensive player of the year honors (also: That was the lone year in which Pagano was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator). 

Suggs primarily rushed from various defensive line positions (end/outside linebacker, as designated by Pro Football Focus), but lined up off the ball on a little under 20 percent of his snaps in 2011. An NFL.com article described him as playing a “hybrid-linebacker” position, which sounds about right. 

Suggs finished 2011 with 14 sacks, seven forced fumbles and two interceptions. 

It’s only May, which means it’s far too early to predict how the Bears will use Mack. Coaches don’t even know the specifics yet. But it’s fair to expect a few different wrinkles for how Mack’s game-wrecking ability is deployed in the Bears’ defense with a full complement of offseason practices — and, too, the coaching minds of Monachino and Pagano. 

“With a player like this, you don’t even have to sit in the offense’s meeting rooms on the other side to know that they have to tend to him on every snap,” Monachino said, referencing Suggs. “They have to know where (former Pittsburgh Steelers safety) Troy Polamalu is on every snap. You gotta know where (Houston Texans edge rusher) JJ Watt is on every snap. This is a guy that you have to do that with. So with Khalil, being able to predict that they’re going to talk about, how do we tend to Khalil Mack on every snap, and then being able to move him into different spots and then to show him in different ways and to do different things with him, it’s going to be really valuable for the defense.”

Eddie Jackson’s pitch for the Bears hits home with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: ‘It’s just like Bama’

Eddie Jackson’s pitch for the Bears hits home with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: ‘It’s just like Bama’

Six years ago, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix recruited a three-star wide receiver recruit named Eddie Jackson to play his college ball at Alabama (Jackson, of course, played for Nick Saban as a safety). In March, it was Jackson who was recruiting Clinton-Dix, this time to play for the Bears. 

He did so with a simple message: “It’s just like ‘Bama.”

And from there, “I was ready to sign,” Clinton-Dix said. 

The friendship between Jackson and Clinton-Dix developed in Tuscaloosa and continued after Clinton-Dix became a first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 2014. But Clinton-Dix didn’t decide to sign with the Bears — on a cheap one-year prove-it deal — just because of the opportunity to team up with one of his friends. 

Jackson and quarterback Mitch Trubisky chatted with Clinton-Dix on his visit to Halas Hall back in March and offered another critical pitch centered around coach Matt Nagy. 

“I told him coach Nagy is one of those coaches, he lets us be us, go out there and have fun with swag,” Jackson said. “But he knew it. He was like man, I know, I’m a fan of y’all, I’ve been watching. He was on board.”

Jackson and Clinton-Dix combined for 14 interceptions since the beginning of the 2017 season, though Clinton-Dix left the Green Bay Packers via a midseason trade last year with a reputation for missing tackles (for what it’s worth, Clinton-Dix missed one fewer tackle than Adrian Amos did in 2018, per Pro Football Focus). The Bears see Clinton-Dix’s one-year deal as a win-win for all parties: The Bears get a starting safety with proven past production and playoff experience, while Clinton-Dix slides into one of the league’s most talented defenses with an excellent opportunity to rebuild his value on the free agent market in 2020. 

“I always like to focus on the positives guys have,” safeties coach Sean Desai said. “He’s shown that he’s a highly instinctual player, he’s shown that he’s got good ball skills and good range and those are traits that we’re going to develop.” 

Jackson and Amos forged a strong relationship on the back end of the Bears’ defense the last two years, with good communication between the two helping accentuate each player’s strengths. A thought here is replacing Amos with Clinton-Dix will help ease the transition for Jackson, given his friendship with his new safety mate. But there’s more that goes into a good safety pairing than a strong friendship. 

“They gotta build that communication,” Desai said. “It’s different to speak a personal language off the field and then a football language on the field. So that’s what we’re all building.”

Still, a good off-the-field relationship with Jackson got Clinton-Dix in the door at Halas Hall. And the Bears hope it can be an important part of the league’s best defense in 2018 holding on to that title in 2019. 

“I’m just glad to be on the back end with him, man,” Clinton-Dix said. “This is a special defense and I’m glad to be a part of these guys.” 

Bears eye position changes in search for improved depth on offense

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USA Today

Bears eye position changes in search for improved depth on offense

The Bears will try to address one of their more glaring weaknesses — tight end depth — by giving longtime offensive tackle Bradley Sowell some work at tight end in the coming weeks of practice at Halas Hall. 

Sowell, a reliable backup swing tackle the last two seasons with the Bears, was targeted twice as a receiver in 2018 — first, on a nearly-intercepted Mitch Trubisky pass against the New England Patriots, and second on the famous “Santa’s Sleigh” touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams. He also got some work as a fullback in the Bears’ Week 17 thumping of the Minnesota Vikings. 

“We felt like at the ‘Y’ position we could use some more depth,” coach Matt Nagy said. “It’s something we talked about at the end of the season. We discussed it and now we’re giving him a chance.”

Nagy’s assessment of the Bears’ “Y” (in-line) depth is accurate, if not even undersold. The athletic 6-foot-7, 312 pound Sowell will have a chance to be a backup to Adam Shaheen, who has missed 13 games in his first two years due to a string of injuries. Reserve tight end Ben Braunecker can play both the “Y” and “U” positions, and the Bears have a handful of undrafted free agents (led by Utah State's Dax Raymond) competing to catch the eye of the coaching staff in the coming weeks. 

The Bears’ offense struggled with two tight ends on the field last year, especially in Shaheen’s absence as Dion Sims played himself out of the league. It’s far too early to tell if adding Sowell to the tight end mix will help, but at this point, the Bears think it’s worth a shot. 

“He’s shown it repetitively in practice that he has the athletic ability, the hands, he’s very smart, he knows how to block and all that stuff,” Nagy said. “So let’s test it out and see. When I tell you he’s all-in, he’s all-in.”

Center of Attention

As expected, the Bears indeed will flip James Daniels and Cody Whitehair on the offensive line, with Daniels sliding to center and Whitehair to left guard. 

“We feel comfortable with it, so again, this is the time to test it out and see,” Nagy said. “It’s hard right now because we don’t have pads. So, we’ll get into training camp and see how that goes. But I feel pretty good about it.”

Daniels exclusively played left guard during last year’s regular season, with the Bears opting to hold steady with Whitehair at center for the third consecutive season. Whitehair, though, was drafted as a guard back in 2016 and only moved to center after the last-minute signing of Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton. Daniels, too, starred as a center at Iowa and did get a smattering of preseason snaps there before fully committing to playing guard his rookie year. 

The change is the only planned one on Harry Hiestand’s offensive line, which returns every primary starter from 2018 (Daniels, Whitehair, Charles Leno, Bobby Massie, Kyle Long). Perhaps the most significant change for this group, then, will be losing Sowell as its backup tackle. 

Windy City: Smoke Out?

Taquan Mizzell will work as a wide receiver during OTAs, with the now-former running back trading in No. 33 for No. 11 but facing an uphill battle to make the Bears’ roster. 

Mizzell does have a decent track record as a pass-catcher dating back to his college days at Virginia, but it’ll take a massive effort for the third-year player to crack into a crowded receiver room that already has a competitive battle brewing between Javon Wims, Marvin Hall and a group of undrafted free agents. 

While it’s too early to grant rookie running back Kerrith Whyte Jr. a roster spot, shifting Mizzell out of the picture does appear to create a clearer path for the seventh-round pick to stick with the Bears this fall.