EAGAN, Minn. -- There aren’t many players in the NFL who can change the outlook of an entire team (and arguably the NFC North picture) the way Khalil Mack did when he was traded from Oakland to Chicago on Sept. 1. Before taking a snap with the Bears, Mack was viewed as a game-changer -- even for a defense that was already one of the best in the league. The last player Vikings coach Mike Zimmer remembers being viewed in the same light was Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White, the subject of arguably the greatest free-agent signing in NFL history when he moved from the Eagles to the Packers in the early 1990s.
The addition of Mack added swagger, in Zimmer’s eyes, to a defense already oozing with confidence backed by its smashmouth, Monsters of the Midway brand. Plugging in the former Defensive Player of the Year to a top-10 scheme from 2017 took things to another level, as evidenced by Chicago’s No. 1 ranking in Total QBR allowed and yards per rush allowed this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“Adding a guy like him is going to be a big factor in getting them better,” Zimmer said. “I think it allows them to play the style of defense that they would like to play.”
And what kind of defense is that? One whose smothering dominance is centered around a hell-raising force who is no small part of why the Bears sit in first place in the NFC North.
Since Mack entered the league four years ago, opposing teams quickly came to the realization that he’s not someone who can be stopped. If a tight end tries to chip him, Mack will blow right past it. If an offense dedicates two or three blockers to him on certain downs, it opens things for other defenders to make an impact. Trying to mitigate his impact is the key for the Vikings' offense, which they know won’t be easy.
“He really adds a lot of physicality to their defense,” Zimmer said. “Everybody knows he’s a good rusher, but the physicality of defeating a tight end, defeating an offensive tackle, the aggressive nature that he plays with, I think that probably adds to all the other guys.”
The way Mack has been used in Chicago looks different from his first four seasons in Oakland, where he started his career as a hybrid linebacker before morphing into a fierce edge rusher who did a lot of his work against teams' right tackles. He was rarely used on the interior on passing downs and often stayed on the left side of the line while former Raider Bruce Irvin rushed off the right side.
Chicago defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has found ways to use Mack’s skill set where he’s constantly giving offenses varied looks, isolated on the right or left side in certain games and splitting his snaps between both ends of the line in others.
“The No. 1 thing we need to see is where is he,” offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said. “We are going to have ways to protect both sides. I know our plan will be solid.”
Pass protection is an important role for Vikings running backs, but this week is crucial in an all-hands-on-deck effort. Latavius Murray, who spent three seasons with Mack in Oakland, knows how tricky it is in accounting for all the places Mack may line up, especially if it leads to him ending up one-on-one with his former teammate.
“We have to take care of him -- we know that. But we don’t want to get too caught up in doing too much to where we’re not doing what we want to do and the things that we want to do," Murray said. "We have a game plan based on where he’ll be, but for the most part we’ll have to defend the looks they give us and go from there.”
The Bears' defense boasts an NFL-best plus-13 turnover differential and has scored a league-best 89 points off turnovers this season. Mack’s signature strip sack has been the consequence for quarterbacks who hold the ball too long, but others (Akiem Hicks, Roquan Smith, Leonard Floyd, Danny Trevathan, etc.) have made an impact for Chicago in becoming the league leader in turnovers (25), including 16 interceptions.
It’s no coincidence or anomaly that those plays keep happening, according to quarterback Kirk Cousins. It’s why in a game like this, against this caliber of a defense, playing outdoors at night, an added emphasis on ball security is imperative.
“Very much something we talk about and are aware of,” Cousins said. “I think it’s one of the biggest statistics to point to as to why the Bears are playing at the level they are. When you create turnovers, that is a critical factor in winning football games. Something we have to be very aware of. I don’t know that I drop back saying, ‘Don’t fumble, don’t fumble,’ or ‘Don’t throw a pick.’ You still have to play, but you’re just aware that this is one of the ways they’ve been able to win some football games is by creating turnovers again and again and again.”
For rookie right tackle Brian O'Neill, whom Mack probably will line up across often on Sunday night, the challenge is far greater than any he has faced this season. According to Pro Football Focus, O’Neill has not allowed a sack in 260 pass-rushing snaps, but he allowed two QB hits and three hurries against New Orleans' Cameron Jordan.
While Cousins has performed incredibly well while pressured on 40 percent of his dropbacks this season, it may take all the maximum protections DeFilippo can come up with to shield his quarterback. If the Vikings are without tight end David Morgan, who did not practice on Wednesday and Thursday with a knee injury, that challenge becomes more difficult, but not totally foreign, especially for an OC who was around for Mack’s rookie season in Oakland.
“We’ve, I don’t want to say [been] fortunate, but we’ve faced some elite pass-rushers so far this season,” DeFilippo said. “Seems like every week we’ve got one. I think our plan on how to handle it has been somewhat solid. We haven’t been perfect, but we’ve been pretty good. Khalil is, obviously, I know him on a personal level because I was in Oakland when we drafted him. I know him up close and personal how good he is and how good his skill set is. We have our hands full.”