- Khalil Mack has put in extra work with outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley to get up to speed in Chicago
LAKE FOREST, Ill.— Eddie Jackson filed out of the defensive meeting room after the full-team post-practice meeting, the last event of the day on the team’s in-season weekly schedule. It was quitting time, around 5:30 p.m., so Jackson, the second-year safety, headed toward the front entrance of the facility with most of his teammates. Halfway down the hall, he noticed one player separate from the group and duck into a position room.
Curious, Jackson glanced inside the position room door that read OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS in block-style capital letters. It was new arrival Khalil Mack sitting down to watch film with outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley. They both settled into their chairs, looking like they planned to be there for a good, long while.
When Mack’s trade and contract extension with the Bears was finalized, he had exactly seven days before the season opener in Green Bay. Just a week to learn Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense and Chicago’s game plan for the Packers. But in his debut as a Bear, Mack looked all caught up on his summer reading, despite cramming an entire playbook in a week. He sacked backup quarterback Deshone Kizer and forced a fumble, returned an interception for a touchdown and provided an assist on rookie Roquan Smith’s first sack. Mack was the first player since 1982 to record a sack, an interception, a touchdown, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery all in one half. And even though the Bears fell to the Packers in dramatic fashion, Mack nearly chased down Randall Cobb on his runaway, game-winning 75-yard touchdown.
Mack is an incredibly gifted athlete, but the early and late hours he spent in the outside linebackers room with just Staley also played a part in his dominant debut. “This is a whirlwind for this guy,” Staley said Monday afternoon. “He's left everything he has known, coming to a brand new city and meeting all these new people. And for him to be able to perform like he did each day last week—it wasn't just Sunday night, it was a culmination of a great week of preparation and he deserves a lot of credit.”
Mack’s week began when he flew to Chicago from New York City, where he’d been visiting his agent, on the Saturday night the deal was finalized. The overachiever didn’t have his playbook to study on the flight to Chicago, but once he touched down, he didn’t waste much time getting his hands on it. “I don’t know if I can say that,” Mack said coyly, not wanting to give away anything about his new team. “But I got it after I landed. I got it as soon as I landed and got to the hotel.”
The sessions with Staley started right after Mack spent his first night at a Chicagoland hotel with his iPad playbook nearby. Halfway through his first week of practice, Mack referred to Staley as his “after school tutor.” The two met each morning around 6 a.m. and again after meetings were done for the day, from around 5:30 until 10 p.m. “The guy still had to get some sleep,” Staley conceded.
Staley made a conscious effort to contain his excitement and not rush through any part of the teaching process. “We just really wanted to be purposeful in not skipping any steps,” he said. “You can jump ahead really easily and try and get too far ahead of yourself. We really wanted to build a foundation and get to know each other first and then get to know us on defense.”
They started with technique and by going over how Staley wants his outside linebackers to play. Some things are still a work in progress, like Mack playing with his hand down during some of his snaps on Sunday. Staley mentioned he’d prefer Mack to play up, rather than down, but switching between the two shows how versatile he is. “He had his hand down, I know he can play hand up, hand down, either side,” Staley said. “That's the great thing about him and what was neat is he really has adapted in seven days to the way we want to play.”
Next, they learned Fangio’s scheme, and mastered all the base calls so that Mack would have a foundation to guide his assignments for the different looks he might see out of the Packers offense. Staley built on this day-by-day and added in the situational standpoint, the defense as it related to the game plan for Green Bay. A few times, Mack requested to take the studying out of the linebackers room. He and Staley walked through different assignments and techniques at the team’s indoor practice field, the Walter Payton Center. “He wanted to feel it,” Staley said. “He wanted to live it. It's one thing to watch it on tape and see it in a playbook and its another to go out and move.”
“Learning the defense so fast, it shows you what type of player he is,” Jackson, the Bears safety, said.” He is always in the meeting room with his position coach by himself. I’m like, okay, yeah, he's getting his work in. He is fitting in well. You would think he's been here forever.”
Mack hasn’t even been in Chicago long enough to move out of the hotel where he’s been staying for almost two weeks. He told The MMQB he’s closing on a house this week, so he’ll be moving soon. About time, he said at his locker on Thursday. He’s getting tired of hotel living.
Maybe it seems like he’s been here forever because it was clear from Mack’s first practice rep that he wouldn’t need much of a breaking-in period before performing exactly like Bears brass expected when they traded for him. “When he first got here, everyone was anxious to see, ‘Is he going to ease his way into this?’” Staley said. “But his first practice rep, he was shot out of a cannon and you just knew then, that he's fresh.”
“His first get-off, it was effortless but it was super fast,” outside linebacker Aaron Lynch said Thursday before the Green Bay game. “So it's like, yeah, we alright. It's a done deal. If anybody blocks him, I don't know who that person is. Nobody should block him. Everybody gets blocked, but no one should block him. Good luck to them.”
Green Bay’s right tackle Bryan Bulaga was Mack’s regular matchup Sunday night and was asked to solo-block the Bears outside linebacker for the majority of Mack’s 42 snaps. The first half was rough for Bulaga, who had a false start and allowed much of Mack’s damage to occur. After the game, Bulaga said that at halftime, he sat at his locker and visualized all the ways Mack had beaten him in the first half. He decided to change up his technique, varying his set points and his hands to counter Mack. It worked better, but Bulaga was also helped by the quick passing game Rodgers employed in the second half, which was designed to get the ball out before the rush had time to get him.
After the Packers win, Bulaga was asked if he’d had any fun at all with the challenge of facing off against one of the greatest pass rushers in the league. “Oh yeah,” Bulaga deadpanned. “It was my favorite thing ever.”
Staley said his favorite thing ever was watching Mack and fellow outside linebacker Leonard Floyd running after Randall Cobb as he headed for the end zone on a short pass from Rodgers that he took all the way to the house. Mack was about six yards behind Cobb when he started running and made up the space to dive at him a yard out from the goal line.
Jackson said he preferred Mack’s pick-6, where he juked past Green Bay left tackle David Bakthiari on his way to a score. Staley did have one note for him though. “I was a little bit worried about his ball security,” he joked. “We may need to get that cleaned up.” “He was at about the 10 yard line and I saw 17 [Davante Adams] running up and I said, ‘Oh baby, this is going to be close.’ So we will have to work on that a little bit extra in practice.”
Staley and Mack both agree that their bonus sessions—whether focused on ball security or more pressing matters—will continue for the foreseeable future. There’s still plenty of work to be done. “He’s made it real easy for me, transitioning in,” Mack said. “We will continue to do [the sessions] as time goes on and I get the full grasp of the defense.”
And for Staley, it’s become more than just a one-sided coach-player relationship.
“A lot of times when guys come off the field, they may not be exactly sure of what happened out there,” Staley said. “But he is keenly aware of what happened in practice and in a game. He can tell you exactly how a tackle set or he can tell you something about the cadence. I think he is going to be able to help me and our team out that way because he has outstanding field vision.”
A new narrative was set for the Bears’ 2018 season as soon as the deal for Mack went through. Many interpreted it as a vote of confidence for second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, and as a sign that the front office felt the team had enough pieces to contend and enter win-now mode. But inside the locker room, players think everyone is reading way too much into that angle.
“Mentally, I don't think anybody was like, ‘Oh, now they think we can win,’” outside linebacker Aaron Lynch said. “Oh, ‘Now we can win because we got him.’ We knew we could win before we got him, but now he's just added so much more power.”
Staley has 11 years of collegiate coaching experience, but he’s just 35 years old and in his second season in the NFL. So he was beyond excited when a talent like Mack fell into his lap so early in his NFL career. He first heard about the trade from his wife, Amy, who had seen the news break online. He joked that Amy is probably the only person who would really know how many hours he and Mack put in last week. When asked about his tutoring hours with Mack, Staley talked openly and energetically. For him, the overtime was not just necessary, it was fun.
At some point in the blur of last week, Staley remembers head coach Matt Nagy asking him, “So, what do you think of Mack?”
The outside linebackers coach had just two words to say: “Thank you.”
• Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.