It’s difficult not to be optimistic about a Bears defense that’s coming off its most impressive back-to-back games of the season and now gets its best player back Sunday for the first time in three weeks.
OLB Khalil Mack, the team leader with five sacks and four forced fumbles, practiced for the second straight day Thursday and is expected to start at Soldier Field against the Lions, who allowed 10 sacks last week. The three-time Pro Bowler did not play in the previous two games, but even without him, the Bears still allowed an average of just 9.5 points and 235.5 yards.
In the two games prior to that, Mack was far from 100 percent. He suffered a sprained right ankle early in the second quarter against the Dolphins, played through it and then tried to do the same the following week against the Patriots with disappointing results. The Bears allowed 922 yards to the Dolphins and Patriots with Mack playing hurt, but they permitted just 471 to the Jets and Bills with Mack on the sidelines.
The Bears won’t know what Mack’s “pitch count” will be until hours before Sunday’s noon kickoff, but he’s been champing at the bit the past two weeks, when he missed the first two games of his five-year career.
“He wants to be out there,” coach Matt Nagy said. “But sometimes in these types of situations, we have to protect a player from the player. You get guys that want to be out there and want to be playing and doing everything that they can; that’s OK. I love that part of it. But we need to make sure that on the health-side of it, are we doing the right thing for him and for our team?”
Mack’s back-to-back full practices this week marked the first time he’s managed that since Oct. 11-12. He had been playing about 80 percent of the defensive snaps in the four weeks up to and including the game in which he was injured. There’s no guarantee he’ll get that much work Sunday, but he played 70 percent of the snaps against the Packers in the season opener without the benefit of training camp or the preseason.
What Nagy and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio are especially encouraged by is how well the entire defense has played in Mack’s absence. Only two defenses in the league have allowed fewer plays of 10 yards or longer than the Bears, an indication that all 11 players have been assignment sound and are running to the ball, among other things.
“(It’s) knowing what to do, doing it the right way and doing it as hard as you can,” Fangio said. “Fundamental football. We had that stretch there for two weeks where we didn’t tackle well (vs. the Dolphins and Patriots), and those two weeks weren’t evident of that stat that you’re alluding to. If we tackle well (and stay healthy), I would like to see that continue.”
CB Kyle Fuller has four interceptions in the last four games, the most in the NFL. Veteran ILB Danny Trevathan has 19 tackles in the last two games, while rookie ILB Roquan Smith has 18. Up front, DE Akiem Hicks and NT Eddie Goldman, who have played well all season, have been even better in the last two games. Last week, S Eddie Jackson returned a fumble 65 yards for a touchdown, and OLB Leonard Floyd went 19 yards for another TD after his first career interception.
“They play fast, with confidence, (and they’re) flying around,” Nagy said. “In particular, last week. It was contagious. It wasn’t just one guy. They played the week before as well against the Jets, with those (six) three-and-outs that they forced.
“Our guys have a lot of confidence in themselves. We felt that way when we were in training camp and heading into the season. When we added Khalil in the trade (Sept. 1), he just elevated everybody’s (play) even more. (But) our guys have no doubt in their minds that they can play well without him, and I think that’s pretty special to have.”
Now they get to see how well they can play with Mack back.
In addition to OLB Khalil Mack (ankle), WRs Allen Robinson (groin) and Taylor Gabriel (knee), DL Bilal Nichols (knee), OL Eric Kush (neck) and TE Ben Braunecker (concussion) were all full participants in Thursday’s practice. TE Dion Sims (concussion) did not practice.