Bears

Why hasn't Khalil Mack been getting sacks lately?

Why hasn't Khalil Mack been getting sacks lately?

Khalil Mack has one sack over his last five games — or, to put it another way, he has one sack since Akiem Hicks suffered a gruesome elbow injury that landed him on injured reserve. 

But the effort given by highest paid defensive player in NFL history hasn’t dwindled, and he hasn’t lost any of the skills that made him a franchise-altering sensation in 2018. Opposing offenses quickly figured out that without Hicks to affect the pocket up the middle, they can do whatever they want to scheme Mack out of making a massive impact. 

For the Detroit Lions on Sunday, that meant having every position on the offensive line (tackle, guard, center) as well as tight ends, running backs and wide receivers do their part to keep Mack out of the pocket. And the Lions’ playcalling played a part, too, with plenty of quick throws and bootlegs to get quarterback Jeff Driskel away from Mack. 

The result, as outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino explained, was Mack having only nine one-on-one opportunities to rush the quarterback on 46 drop-backs. 

“This is a guy that doesn’t flinch, doesn’t get frustrated, he’s a great teammate,” Monachino said. “Is he still impacting games? Not the way that he would like. Impacting plays, yes, down in and down out, but I do believe that you gotta give those teams a lot of credit. They’re going to tend to him and they have done a really nice job of it. 

“… So I think he would love to impact the game more with those game-changing plays, but right now he’s looking at it like Novocain. He’s going to keep using it and eventually it’s going to work.”

Aside from the inscrutable nature of that Novocain comment, Monachino has a point: Mack’s mere presence is still impacting games. The problem is the Bears aren’t getting enough from Leonard Floyd — who only has one sack since Week 1 — to help balance out the extreme focus on Mack. 

While Nick Williams has performed well in Hicks’ absence — he leads the Bears with six sacks — Mack’s lack of sacks is another ripple effect of not having No. 96 on the field. 

“Akiem demands attention,” Monachino said. “He requires at least four eyes on him. Without push inside — and we’re getting great edge rushes out of Roy (Robertson-Harris) and out of Bilal (Nichols) and out of Nick, obviously Nick’s really been productive. 

“But without great push in the middle of the pocket, the quarterback is able to climb the pocket. And when he can climb the pocket, our edge stuff isn’t as good. So our counters have to get better, but when our counters get better and they’re still turning the protection to you and there’s a guard standing there waiting on you, it’s hard to get home.”

So while Mack is affecting opposing offenses, he’s not wrecking games like he did in 2018 and the first four games of 2019. This is all to say it’s not really his fault. Every offensive coordinator and coach is going to make sure Mack does not beat them when they play the Bears, because as we’ve seen, there’s not proven to be much downside to committing a tackle, guard, tight end, running back and/or wide receiver to blocking or chipping him on a given play. 

Even a player as great as Mack can’t overcome that. 

The problem for the Bears is the solution to this problem doesn’t exist right now. Floyd is who he is at this point in his career, and Hicks won’t be back until Week 15 at the earliest. So the Bears might need to ride this out and play solid, sound defense with the understanding those game-wrecking plays produced or caused by Mack may be in short supply for the time being. 

It's another reason why the Bears' defense is good, but not great, in 2019. 

“He was effective (against Detroit),” Monachino said. “He would prefer to be productive. But getting around the quarterback, forcing different arm angles, forcing the guy to throw the ball sooner than he wants to, those things are still happening.” 

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Roquan Smith's 2019 had ups-and-downs, but it ends with more optimism than ever

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USA Today

Roquan Smith's 2019 had ups-and-downs, but it ends with more optimism than ever

Roquan Smith’s season is over. 

During his Monday morning press conference, Matt Nagy announced that Smith did in fact tear a pectoral muscle and will be placed on injured reserve. 

“[It’s] unfortunate for him,” Nagy added. “He’s really putting together a good year. But he’ll bounce back and that’s that.” 

Not only did Smith’s injury come at the worst possible time for the Bears – two of their last three games are against NFC North rivals on the road – but the injury ends what was the best extended run of play in the second-year linebacker’s career. He'll undergo surgery to fix the muscle, and the timeline for his return is still unclear. 

“I really thought you felt him – especially here in the last several games – really turning it on, really playing fast,” Nagy said. “He’s always had that – every play that he gets, every game that he plays, for the rest of his career, he’s only gonna get better and better in my opinion.”

Comparing his two seasons on paper would suggest that Smith regressed after a Pro Bowl-caliber rookie season, but that doesn't tell the whole story. It's remarkable that he may still finish the season as the team leader in tackles, not to mention the fact that he was on pace to eclipse last season's stats. He would have needed a few more big games, but going into Thursday night, Smith had logged double-digit tackles in four of his last five starts, including a career-high (16) in their Thanksgiving win just a week before. He finishes 2019 with 100 tackles, two sacks and one interception in 12 games played.

“One thing you can say about Roquan is he will run sideline to sideline,” Akiem Hicks added. “I mean, he just has a pair of wheels on him that just won't stop. That's one of the things that separates him is he can get anywhere you need him to be, whether it's coverage or chasing a running back in the flats. It's pretty impressive.”

Nagy and the Bears talked at length on Monday about the ‘ebb and flow’ of an NFL season, especially as it pertains to younger players. He was quick to dismiss the idea that the mysterious-now-bordering-on-infamous personal absence, which caused Smith to miss Week 4’s win over Minnesota, in any way negatively affected how the organization views Smith’s year-to-year progress. His toughness has never been questioned – Prince Amukamara admitted that he was pretty confident Smith tore the muscle several plays before he came out – and coaches have been pleased with how he stepped up as a leader, especially in Danny Trevathan’s absence. 

“Well last year, coming in missing training camp and then being a rookie with an experienced defense – that can be challenging and he did a good job,” Nagy said. “Then coming into this year, you could sense his personality – you could see it extend a little bit more. You could see the relationships he had with those guys. You could see Danny Trevathan really take him under his wing and that was very important. So he's a guy that's really been growing …” 

And now the Bears head into the three straight weeks of playoff games that aren’t playoff games with Nick Kwiatkoski and Kevin Pierre-Louis as their starting inside linebacker duo. It’s a far cry from what the envisioned in Bourbonnais, but Kwiatkoski has earned himself more money every week, and as his top-grade performance against the Cowboys showed, KPL is no slouch either. Pierre-Louis is in line to make only the second start of his six-year career when the Bears head to Lambeau Field on Sunday. 

“Once again, it’s just going back to knowing your ‘Why,’” Pierre-Louis said. “Why you grind each week, why you do the drills, why you go through the reps in practice. It’s times like this when you lean on your brothers. Ro’s down right now, and he’s going to need us for moral support…

“We have the right pieces. I just have to make sure that I do my job, and the rest of the team is going to have my back.” 

WATCH: Matt Nagy mic'd up during Bears' win over Cowboys

WATCH: Matt Nagy mic'd up during Bears' win over Cowboys

Bears coach Matt Nagy has maintained a steady and calm demeanor throughout the 2019 season, one which has fallen short of expectations in Chicago and around the NFL. But his team's current three-game winning streak has kept postseason hopes alive, even if just barely. 

And while Nagy may fill postgame press conferences with a bunch of cliches and coach-speak, his on-field personality is a better reflection of the former quarterback he actually is. 

Nagy was mic'd up for the Bears' Week 14 win over the Cowboys and it's easy to see why he's been able to keep this team together despite such a trying season. Other locker rooms might have fractured under the pressure that comes along with failure. Not Chicago's. And it's in large part due to the culture Nagy's created.

Here's a sneak peek into what's led to Nagy's 19-10 record through nearly two seasons on the job:

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