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.”