CHICAGO — It's no coincidence that Khalil Mack's return from a two-game injury absence coincided with the Bears tying their season high with six sacks in a thoroughly impressive defensive showing in their 34-22 victory over the Detroit Lions.
The Bears admitted that the mere presence of Mack, who missed the first two games of his career in Weeks 8 and 9 while resting his injured right ankle, created a game-changing effect for their defense. However, it should be noted that a Bears 'D' that dominated in his absence was well on its way to making Lions QB Matthew Stafford's afternoon a long one, with much of it spent on his back, prior to Mack taking him down.
CB Bryce Callahan was actually the first Bears defender to bring down Stafford, getting home on a blitz off the left edge of the defense on only the unit's third play from scrimmage, with Chicago already leading 7-0. Six plays later, on third-and-9, Roquan Smith's number was called on another blitz resulting in a sack.
"The sacks, the takeaways, they were still flying around," Bears head coach Matt Nagy said of his defense. "... That's three games in a row now that they played well."
Following Chicago's second and third consecutive TD drives to open up a 19-0 lead, Callahan ran Marvin Jones' route for him and tallied his second interception of the season. The Bears found the end zone less than two minutes later to go up 26-0, a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"I'm always pulling for those guys in a contract year," said CB Prince Amukamara, who parlayed his own contract year in 2017 into a three-year, $27 million extension, of Callahan. "He's been great for us. Bryce had a great game and he's going to continue to stack those up and, of course, make it a hard decision for the Bears.
"He's playing like one of the best nickels in the league right now."
And the Bears perhaps are playing like the best overall defense in the league right now, thanks not only to Mack but also because of players such as Callahan and Amukamara, who was in on two of Chicago's three takeaways Sunday with an interception and a forced fumble.
Even Bears OLB Leonard Floyd, like Amukamara a former first-rounder who doesn't typically fill the stat sheet a la Mack (and even Callahan) this season, got off the schneid with his first sack of the season.
"I'm more relieved about winning this division game," Floyd said of snapping his 11-game drought without a full sack. "The sack was special. It's a play I'll remember."
Floyd, who spent most of Sunday rushing off the defensive left edge where Mack generally aligns, did receive the benefit of a single blocker — reeling Lions RT Rick Wagner — on his sack. But he wasn't about to give the officials the benefit of the doubt, dropping Stafford to the ground extra cautiously to avoid any potential flags flying.
"It's been so long since I held a quarterback," Floyd quipped, "I just wanted to hold him a little longer than normal."
As for Mack, who led Chicago Sunday with two sacks, he admitted he felt he was playing catch-up following his absence. His first big contribution came on a third-and-1 run stuff early in the first quarter.
But it was particularly apparent that Mack was making up for lost time on his second sack, when Mack bull rushed not one but two blockers — the chipping tight end and 2016 first-round LT Taylor Decker — en route to Stafford.
After breaking out an air guitar to celebrate his first sack —"I felt like I was listening to Guns N' Roses," he said — he literally did a pair of cartwheels on the field following the second one.
Think this dominant Bears defense is having fun as it's become one of the NFL's best playmaking units?
"It’s been emphasized since the beginning of the year, and we’re really trying to make that push to be one of the best defenses in the league," said Amukamara of Chicago's focus on generating sacks and turnovers. "[Vic] Fangio is known for having those type of rankings, and we really enjoy that it’s helping the team out and we’re really trying to have fun with it."
Indeed, at 6-3, the Bears are off to their best start since 2012, when they finished 10-6 in Lovie Smith's final season. Of course, Chicago missed the playoffs that year. This Bears team understands the importance of taking it one game at a time, with a visit from the 5-3-1 Minnesota Vikings looming in prime time next Sunday.
"Big-time game," Mack said of hosting the Vikings. "Got to make big plays in big games. Another chance for us and we’re looking forward to it."
And Mack isn't resting on the laurels of his two-sack return to the lineup.
"Could’ve been three, four," he said, laughing. "Just looking forward to next week, getting out there again, getting some more wins. That’s what it’s really all about."