On one of the defining plays of the Aaron Rodgers era of the Bears-Packers rivalry, Khalil Mack got “spooked,” as outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley put it.
Facing third and 10 at their own 25-yard line, the Packers called for running back Ty Montgomery to motion across the formation, which had been a tell that a screen was about to be run. So instead of a full-throated pass rush, Mack disengaged with right tackle Bryan Bulaga and dropped into space near Montgomery to try to cover what he thought would be a screen to the running back.
The play, of course, wasn’t a screen (and Montgomery was well-covered by Leonard Floyd). When Rodgers released his game-winning throw, one of the best edge rushers in the game was well away from the quarterback, stuck in no man’s land.
Here’s how it went down, visually:
...then disengages, thinking Rodgers is going to flip the ball to Montgomery. pic.twitter.com/h5QslFgL6r— JJ Stankevitz (@JJStankevitz) September 11, 2018
Mack unquestionably had a dominant game, but this is another example of how the Packers schemed to limit his impact in the second half.— JJ Stankevitz (@JJStankevitz) September 11, 2018
So when Mack talked about needing to get better after a game he thoroughly dominated for the first 30 minutes, consider this a specific of that self-criticism. Credit the Packers, too, with an excellent design to take Mack out of the biggest play of the game.
But Mack is as advertised beyond his standout play on the field: His approach and attitude off the field after Sunday's game matched everything said about him, too.
“Gotta get better,” Mack said. “Gotta get way better, especially down the stretch being in a position to win the game and sack, fumble, just like they did on the other side of the ball. It’s one of those things for me. I’m learning from everything. Yeah, I had a few positives, but it’s a lot of negatives.”
The Packers successfully schemed to limit Mack’s impact in the second half, with quick-throw plays not giving the Bears’ pass rush enough time to affect a hobbled Rodgers. The counter to that, Staley said, is to “block shots” — as in, get your hands in the air and try to bat down the passes. Staley said his outside linebackers got their hands in the air a couple of times, but it didn’t result in a pass being knocked incomplete.
But that Mack wasn’t satisfied after recording a sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery, interception and touchdown wasn’t surprising to Staley, who spent hours as Mack’s self-described “after-school tutor” last week.
(How many hours? “My wife would know,” Staley quipped.)
“I think from the second we sat down, you just knew this guy’s got a lot higher standard for himself than anybody else,” Staley said. “He takes his craft really, really serious. It was funny, in the first one-on-one pass rush rep he took in practice, just the detail he has for his performance really criticizing himself — a performance that maybe all of us would judge as a win, he’s saying no, I just missed his wrist by a little bit or, no, I was late off the ball. And that’s what makes him unique and I think the most important thing to him is winning, and we didn’t do that (Sunday).”
For Mack to play 70 percent of the Bears’ snaps (42/60) after one week of practice would’ve been impressive enough, but the immediate impact he made on the game was monumental. But what will drive the 27-year-old going forward is how his impact was limited in the second half — and it’s a tantalizing thought for the Bears’ defense that they haven’t got a guy who played nearly 90 percent of the Oakland Raiders’ snaps over the last four years completely up to speed yet.
The Bears will get the full-strength, motivated version of Mack at some point. It could be as soon as next week. And that's when the full scope of Mack's impact can be seen over 60 minutes here in Chicago.
“His energy toward the game and his craft is rare,” Staley said. “And I think that’s what makes him really special.”