Bears defense gets a boost from even partial return of Pernell McPhee

Bears defense gets a boost from even partial return of Pernell McPhee

For a defense struggling to rush passers and stop opponents short of 20 points, Friday was an official day for at least a small beam of light off in the distance.

The glow was emanating from outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, the marquee signing of GM Ryan Pace early the 2015 offseason but whose first year in Chicago spiraled downward with a left-knee injury that reduced him to more games inactive (two) than sacks (one) over the final nine games, and eventually required surgery this offseason.

Friday was the first day McPhee was eligible to practice after being placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list to open the season. He spent his first practice serving on the scout team, simulating Jacksonville Jaguars plays and formations for his teammates.

“Feel awesome,” McPhee said afterwards. “I feel great, man. I'm out there practicing, running around with my teammates, so that's the best feeling in the world.”

McPhee would be eligible to play next Thursday against the Packers in Green Bay. As for whether he will: “You'll see, you'll see,” McPhee said, smiling.

The Bears now have 21 days within which to move him onto the 53-man roster, or be forced to relegate him to injured reserve for the remainder of the season. The final date for the roster decision would be Nov. 4, the Friday before the Bears’ bye week, which would set his return for the Nov. 13 game at Tampa Bay, the scene of McPhee’s final sack last season.

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Getting him back would be one of the best feelings in the world for the Bears defense. McPhee was voted by teammates as one of the defensive co-captains and put up five sacks over the span of five games last season before his knee issues really set in.

Now he looms as a potential in-season booster shot for a defense that has gotten virtually no impact pass rushing from a corps of linebackers that projected to be a strength this season. But Lamarr Houston, the 2015 sack leader with eight, was lost for the season with a knee injury, and No. 1 draft pick Leonard Floyd has delivered just a half-sack being in and out of the lineup with injuries.

A fresh McPhee and his emotional edge can be a lift for the entire defense.

“Any time that guys can look next to him and see kind of an integral part or a guy that can be a integral part to help you win, obviously that gives you confidence," Bears head coach John Fox said. "It gives you a boost of energy.

“I think jokingly guys refer to it as ‘fresh legs.’ You know they haven't been out there through the grind of practicing all week and over the course of time, a month's worth of time. You know guys do have a little bit of a freshness to them. It's a little hard to tell on the first day and it wasn't a padded practice, it wasn't a real extensive practice, Fridays typically a little more of a light workout but I'd say I think there was some enthusiasm there and some freshness there for sure.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?


SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Chris Emma, Matt Zahn and Gabe Ramirez join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh joins the panel to discuss the Bulls’ terrible defensive performance as well as Zach LaVine’s impressive season debut.

11:35- Khalil Mack is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Can the Bears pull off the upset against Tom Brady?

23:50- NBC Sports Boston Patriots insider Tom E. Curran joins Kap to talk about how New England views the Bears and discuss how Matt Nagy’s team can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.


Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner.