LAKE FOREST – Playing at a high level is hard for even the best players when they are at their best. When they are dealing with an injury, it only makes things that much more difficult.
Hence is the situation that Khalil Mack is facing as he approaches his seventh game in a Bears’ uniform. He injured his ankle against the Dolphins, yet played the rest of that game, and this past Sunday against the Patriots after resting for two practice days.
He wasn’t as effective, failing to register a sack in either game after getting one of those along with a forced fumble in each of his first four contests with the Bears.
With that in mind, now comes the question to Matt Nagy: Should the Bears allow Mack time to heal his ankle to get his best, or continue to have him play his way through the injury.
It’s a difficult question for the coach to answer, especially considering the immense talent that the outside linebacker has shown in his short time in Chicago.
“It’s not easy. It’s not easy,” said Nagy when asked about finding the line where it’s better for a player to rest or play. “That’s where the trust level from both ends have to be there. The player has to understand where we’re coming from as a team, as to where you’re at percentage-wise. We all know he’s not 100 percent but where are you at?
“That’s where we trust him, he trusts us, and we got ahead with the plan – with the action plan – and that’s what we ended up doing. It’s not an easy decision or process.”
Mack will continue to get his ankle healthy as the Bears prepare for the Jets this week, continuing to walk that line to make sure the linebacker is best prepared for this week and the future. Perhaps it will increase his production after two slow weeks in which he had three combined tackles.
One thing that cut down on some of his ability to rush the passer against the Patriots, however, was not injury but rather strategy. Per Pro Football Focus, Mack was dropped back into coverage 18 times against New England while rushing the passer just 14 times.
For Nagy, the move made by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was all about strategy against five-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.
“When you face a quarterback like Tom Brady, there are different thoughts and concepts and schemes that coaches will do. That was something we did a little bit more obviously yesterday than we have in the past. It creates another defender for the quarterback to have to throw around – especially when you know or think or predict that they’re not going to run the ball. If you think they’re going to run the ball, that’s different, right? Now only three guys are rushing.
“It creates another element to have to throw around – and don’t think that’s the first time he’s seen that. He’s seen that defense a lot from a lot of different teams. So when you decide to drop eight vs him, you’ve got to be good at it.”
They were average at it as Brady went 25-of-36 for 277 yards with three touchdowns compared to just one interception. Roquan Smith registered the only sack of the game in the third quarter, which is the only one the Bears have gotten the last two weeks.
Not having a healthy Mack certainly is a reason for that as the Bears continue to work with the linebacker to return him to full strength.