An unremarkable mid-November game against the Detroit Lions wound up being an accurate snapshot of Khalil Mack’s 2019 season.
Mack, in this afternoon at Soldier Field, didn’t have a sack or quarterback hit – something that happened in six games last year. Part of it was the Lions’ strategy of running backup quarterback Jeff Driskel away from Mack on bootlegs quite a bit. A larger part of it was Mack, in 46 pass rushing opportunities, was only singled up by a tackle nine times, per outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino.
While Akiem Hicks was on injured reserve, opposing offenses were able to throw every available resource at stopping Mack. If that meant leaving a tackle one-on-one with Leonard Floyd, so be it – Floyd wasn’t going to beat that guy and get to the quarterback anyway.
Two weeks later, Mack broke his sack-less streak with a strip-sack of New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones. The reason why was simple to his teammates.
“He got one-on-one,” safety Eddie Jackson said after that game. “They’ve been triple-teaming and double-teaming him. Getting him one-on-one, you can see what he is capable of doing. We’re going to put our money on Mack every time.”
The point here is Mack, despite having only 8 1/2 sacks last year – his lowest total since his rookie season – didn’t take a step back or become a worse player in 2019. He just didn’t have as many opportunities to be Khalil Mack.
That changes in 2020.
The Bears rescinded Floyd’s fifth-year option shortly after agreeing to sign edge rusher Robert Quinn to a five-year, $70 million deal in March. Floyd totaled seven sacks since Mack arrived in Chicago; Quinn ripped off 7 1/2 sacks in his first seven games of the 2019 season with the Dallas Cowboys. He finished last year with 11 1/2 sacks, and over his nine seasons in the NFL is averaging 10 sacks every 16 games.
That’s the guy who’ll line up opposite Mack in 2020.
If offenses need to double Hicks and commit extra resources to blocking Mack – a tight end, a running back, etc. – how can they also account for Quinn on the opposite side of the formation?
No, seriously – how can they?
The Bears are betting on their pass rush in 2020, hence the investment in Quinn while going cheap to fill holes at cornerback and safety. This’ll be a different-looking defense than the Bears had in 2018, when Mack and Hicks wreaked havoc up front but Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell also schemed incredible coverage in the secondary. A lot of 2018's defensive success was predicated on well-planned and even more well-executed coverage schemes.
That 2018 defense sort of broke Richard Dent’s “rule of three” – that every great defense has to have three impactful pass rushers. The 2020 defense should embody Dent’s rule while still having former All-Pros in Kyle Fuller and Jackson patrolling the back end.
Want to single up Mack for a play? He’ll use one of the tools in his pass-rushing repertoire to “sack the football,” as he likes to say. Need to live Quinn one-on-one with a tackle? He’s much more likely to win that matchup than Floyd ever was. All this’ll happen while Hicks pushes the pocket from the interior, along with important dirty work from Eddie Goldman/Roy Robertson-Harris/Bilal Nichols.
If all goes according to plan, this is going to be an awesome defense to watch. Mack and Quinn might both finish the year with double-digit sacks.
And if the Bears’ defense does wind up as the best in the NFL for the second time in three years, the move to swap Floyd for Quinn just might be the biggest reason why.