Part of the Bears’ calculus in deciding to make Khalil Mack inactive for the first time in his career had to be a trust this defense could deliver without their star — yet hobbled — player.
That’s exactly what Vic Fangio’s group did, smothering the New York Jets for all but one drive in a tidy 24-10 win Sunday at Soldier Field. This was hardly the flashiest performance by the Bears’ defense, which only had one sack and didn’t record an interception against a quarterback who led the league in picks heading into Week 8.
But it was an effective effort that, beyond not having Mack on the field, felt like a throwback to what this defense did well in 2017.
“You always want to rally for your guys, especially when they’re down,” defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “You just do your best to play the best of your capabilities. And don’t forget, we were a top 10 defense before.”
Hicks is right about that. A year ago, the Bears’ defense didn’t have a player with more than eight sacks and only totaled eight interceptions. But what this group did well was stop the run and force opposing offenses into difficult down-and-distances, the likes of which could be taken advantage even by a not-so-opportunistic defense.
The Jets’ averaged 8.6 yards-to-gain on third down, which is a good starting point of explaining how New York converted only three of 14 third down tries despite the Bears only recording one sack and two quarterback hits. The Bears’ run defense was dominant, limiting running back/“Dude Wipes” spokesman Isaiah Crowell to 25 yards on 13 ineffective carries. Change of pace back Trenton Cannon only managed 10 yards on six carries, too.
Beyond the Jets’ best offensive weapon being Crowell, stopping the run was critical in setting the tone for a defense that had been so easily and frequently gashed in its last two games.
“If a team gets the momentum and feels like they can topple you and run over you all day, they’re going to keep doing it,” Hicks said. “If you shut that down early, that lets them know that you’re here to play and you gotta be consistent, you gotta keep doing it but it’s a real tone setter. When they scheme runs to run against your defense and you’re smacking them in the mouth, it’s a real tone setter and they don’t forget it.”
The Jets’ receiving corps was comically depleted on Sunday, missing top targets Quincy Enunwa and Robby Anderson as well as reliable pass-catching running back Bilal Powell. But the Bears’ secondary did well to plaster New York’s available receivers and make plays on the ball, even if they didn’t turn any into interceptions. Bryce Callahan broke up three passes, while Eddie Jackson, Kyle Fuller and Danny Trevathan notched pass break-ups as well.
And when Sam Darnold did complete passes, for the most part the Bears’ defense swiftly made tackles. The Jets’ longest play of the game was a 29-yard completion to Deontay Burnett that happened when Fuller barely couldn’t make a fingertip interception.
“We just need to play our ball, man,” Trevathan said. “Get off the field on third down keep them in second and short, stop the run game — there were no turnovers, but I think we played a sound game defensively. Stopped the run game, passing game, kept them limited. It was a good game for us.”
To some extent, the Bears’ defense needed this game. Yes, the Jets offense was horrendous — somehow, it combined for five false start penalties — but the Bears’ defense played well regardless of how many “just a guys” populated their opponent’s depth chart. The Jets were overmatched, and the Bears made sure that played out on the scoreboard.
“We just came out and played our game,” Jackson said. “We executed, we played aggressive and we played four quarters. That was one of the biggest things that we wanted to do.”
Jackson said he had a feeling Mack wouldn’t play when the outside linebacker wasn’t part of the team’s mock game on Saturday, though no decision was made on him until Sunday, coach Matt Nagy said. Deciding to hold Mack out against the Jets was not due to a setback with his balky angle, Nagy added, and his status for Week 9’s trip to Buffalo will remain day-to-day, though the hope is that he’ll be able to play next Sunday.
But the Bears’ defense proved against the Jets it can still clamp down on an opponent even without its most dominant force, at least prior to Mack suffering that ankle injury in Week 6’s loss to the Miami Dolphins. The Bills’ offense is worse than the Jets, and the Bears can take some confidence from Sunday that this defense indeed can succeed without Mack. With a critical three-game stretch against the Lions, Vikings and Lions looming in Weeks 10-12, that’s important, given they’ll need Mack as close to 100 percent for those games as possible to legitimately start thinking about playoff contention.
“This is a day-by-day, daily, hour by hour,” Nagy said. “It's just one that I really haven't been a part of before just because of where he's at, and so you know, it could be a similar situation. But I just think right now, that was what was best for him and what was best for us.
“We had guys that stepped up. I think that's the other thing that you can't get lost in this is when a great player like Khalil or another player like Allen (Robinson) doesn't play, we have guys that step up and that’s — I'm proud of our guys for doing that, and understanding that, knowing that, hey, here we go, it's my time and next man up.”