EAGAN, Minn. – Nobody really wants to say it, but you can imagine the Minnesota Vikings were probably not the happiest organization in the NFL when the Oakland Raiders traded superstar pass rusher Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears prior to the start of this season.
Mack has been everything Chicago dreamed about when watching him throttle the AFC West. In 210 pass rush snaps as a Bear, the former defensive MVP has seven sacks, one QB hit and 22 hurries. Put another way, he is impacting the opposing team’s quarterback once every seven drop backs.
he crazy part: He hasn’t even fully hit his stride yet. Lack of a full training camp and an injury have slowed him down a bit, but last week Mack looked 100 percent when sacking Matthew Stafford twice in a win over the Lions.
Vikings head coach reached back a few decades for the last time he could remember a defensive player’s change of scenery impacting a division quite the way Mack has with the NFC North.
“I think Reggie White was kind of like that when he went from Philadelphia to Green Bay, but that’s a long time ago,” Zimmer said Wednesday. “They were a pretty darn good defense a year ago. They were I think a top-10 defense a year ago. Obviously they’ve improved, they’re healthy, I don’t think they’ve had a lot of injuries defensively, and adding a guy like him is going to be a big factor in getting them better. I think it allows them to play the style of defense that they would like to play.”
Chicago ranks third in the NFL in yards allowed and yards per play allowed, fourth in total points allowed and No. 1 in opposing quarterback rating.
“I think he’s added a lot of swagger to the football team,” Zimmer said of Mack. “I think they have swagger anyway, but I think he’s added some to it knowing that they’ve got a guy of his caliber that’s in there. He really adds a lot of physicality to their defense, I think that’s part of it. Not just the rush part, 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.”
Mack and the Chicago defense offer the Vikings’ toughest challenge yet as an offense. Minnesota’s five wins have come against the 14th, 16th, 17th, 22nd and 26th ranked defenses in yards allowed.
Competing with the Bears’ dominate defense will start with the Vikings’ ability to protect Kirk Cousins, who has been pressured on 40 percent of drop backs this year, the third highest rate in the NFL behind only DeShaun Watson and Josh Rosen.
Rookie right tackle Brian O’Neill will see the majority of Mack’s rushes. The second-round pick from Pitt has been a bright spot for the Vikings having not allowed a sack yet in 260 pass rush snaps. However, the last time he matched up against an elite edge rusher in Cameron Jordan, he gave up three hurries and two QB hits.
Slowing down Mack completely is a near impossible task, but mitigating his impact on the game will be the Vikings’ goal — and while O’Neill will be in the spotlight, negating his pass rush will take a complete effort.
The team that has best handled Mack this season was the Miami Dolphins, who only gave up one pressure on 33 pass rush snaps.
NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger broke down tape on how the Dolphins succeeded:
The Dolphins were willing to triple team Mack at times, which forced the rest of the offensive line to step up against Akiem Hicks, who is an elite defensive tackle. They also ran the ball effectively, taking pressure off of the passing game and used tight ends and running backs to assist in the blocking game.
The Vikings may have a tougher time using the tight end position with David Morgan likely out for this weekend’s game. He is often used as an extra blocker. Fullback CJ Ham may see more snaps than usual against the Bears.
Of course, as the Lions proved a few weeks later, just throwing a tight end at Mack doesn’t slow him down.
#Bears tape: Khalil Mack beats the TE chip and then the OT for the sack.
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) November 12, 2018
Miami also used tempo to wear down the Bears’ defense.
“We were playing in no-huddle, which isn’t easy to do in this system because there’s so much verbiage, there’s so many checks, audibles, and our offensive line did a tremendous job and those guys are the real story, because without them we don’t play the way we did today,” quarterback Brock Osweiler told reporters after the game.
The Vikings already have a quick-pass offense and a quarterback who is routinely under duress, so they have been working all year to overcome pressure and have still performed admirably as an offense. But Mack and the Bears are a different type of challenge, having forced 25 total turnovers.
“They haven’t changed that much defensively except for Khalil Mack, which adds to some of those poor throws and pressure,” Zimmer said. “Their defensive front is outstanding. I think Leonard Floyd is playing a lot better now. Their two corners [Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara] are both very good. Eddie Jackson is a little bit more of a ball hawk since they’ve added him, I think that’s helped and I think he’s playing with a lot more confidence.”