Thursday’s Bears injury report revealed some more encouraging news with who wasn’t on it for the second consecutive day. Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith and Leonard Floyd all fully participated in practice now on both Wednesday and Thursday, continuing to clear a path for that trio of crucially-important Bears to play Sunday night against the Green Bay Packers.
How much each player plays, and what impact they’ll be able to make, will vary. Coaches and trainers have been formulating plans for each this week, and won’t finalize those until after Friday’s final game week practice. But here's where the Bears stand with three of their most important players on the defensive side of the ball:
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was quick to cite Aaron Donald’s snap count from his first game in 2017 following a holdout that extended through the eve of the regular season. Donald made his season debut in Week 2 for the Los Angeles Rams and only played 48 snaps, which was about two-thirds of the defensive snaps taken by the Rams that day. Outside of three blowout wins, Donald never played fewer than 78 percent of the Rams’ defensive snaps after his season debut.
“Some other guys have played in the 20s (after their holdouts),” Fangio said. “I think everybody’s individual but it’s something we’re going to have to manage and keep an eye on.”
For Mack, the biggest impediment to him playing a high percentage of snaps is in terms of his conditioning having not participated in a preseason practice. But this is a guy who also has never missed a game in his career, and played a little under 90 percent of the Raiders’ defensive snaps since his NFL debut in 2014.
Mack said he’s been spending most of his time taking a crash course in the Bears’ playbook — outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley is “like my after-school tutor,” he said — but may not need an extensive, deep knowledge of it to make an impact against the Packers.
“Just a little bit I want to know to try and get to Aaron on Sunday,” Mack said.
The ever-honest Fangio was certainly happy to add Mack to his defense, though he’s not viewing the 27-year-old as a panacea. Make no mistake: Mack will play on Sunday, and while it may not be as high a volume of snaps as he’ll get from Week 2 on, the Bears’ defense will be better for it.
“Any time you get a player of his ability it can do nothing but help make you better, helps make the players around him better,” Fangio said. “But he’s been the same player in Oakland throughout his career, very well decorated and a lot of honors that he deserved and Oakland was never better than mid-20s in defense, so one guy doesn’t make a whole unit, as pretty evident by that.”
Still, the Bears will toss Mack into a defense that finished in the NFL’s top 10 in points allowed in 2017 and retained nearly all of its top-of-the-depth-chart players. That’s led to plenty of excitement inside and outside Halas Hall this week, though Fangio isn’t too concerned with what’s being said outside these walls in Lake Forest.
“I’m not too aware of the media and the fan reaction,” Fangio said. “I only pay attention to the Cubs in the media. … The Cubs had a big win (Wednesday night).”
How much Smith will be involved on Sunday is a little less clear.
Smith is optimistic he’ll be active for the game, and there hasn’t been any indication from Bears coaches that his status for playing Sunday is in question. But as Fangio pointed out, Smith hasn’t tackled anyone since Jan. 8, when Alabama beat Georgia in the College Football Playoff title game.
“He did have a good spring for us, played a lot of plays, learned the defense,” Fangio said. “But, basically, he had a practice and a half out in Denver when he reported and then was out for a while, and he's been practicing here lately, looking better every day. At some point you just have to put him in there. You can't just say he hasn't tackled anybody since last January. He's gonna have to do it at some point.”
The Bears aren’t giving anything away with their plan for Smith, but with a full week of practice leading up to Sunday, it’s likely he’ll play. But he also won’t start, with Nick Kwiatkoski in line for that job next to Danny Trevathan. Some situational use may be the most likely way Smith gets on the field, though it also may not take the No. 8 overall pick long to prove he deserves a greater share of snaps.
“I think he's a good natural football player, I think he understands the game, I think he understands what we're trying to do,” Fangio said. “He has good reactions, good instincts. And any time you have that, that helps the process.”
Smith said the tight hamstring that sidelined him from the second joint practice in Denver in mid-August until this week was “never anything too crazy,” and said he felt “fine” prior to practicing on Wednesday. The biggest thing for Smith’s involvement will be how he communicates with coaches and trainers about how he’s feeling.
While the plan may be for his snaps to be limited, there won’t be a strict cap on them along the lines of a pitch count for a baseball player.
“I don't like the word pitch count, though,” Fangio said. “Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan had no pitch counts.”
Sunday won’t be the first time Floyd has had to deal with a club on his hand — he played with one as a freshman at Georgia back in 2013.
“It really don’t change much,” Floyd said. “It’s still like using your hands. You’ve just got one of your hands just in the club. You’ve just got to use the club a little bit more. Other than that, it’s all just playing football.”
Fangio admitted it will make things “difficult” for Floyd, especially in protecting himself on Sunday. But the Bears have maintained since Floyd suffered his hand injury in Denver on Aug. 19 that he’d be full go for Week 1, and that certainly seems to be the case with only a few days left before the trip to Green Bay.
It’s sort of like the Cubs figuring out who their closer will be in the playoffs — a problem exists, but it’s one that can be overcome, as one of the biggest Cubs fans in the building sees it.
“Joe Maddon’s gotta do his tricks,” Fangio said. “Best manager in baseball will get ‘em through.”