Chicago Bears defense strong, with or without Mack
The Chicago Bears' defense played arguably its best all-around game last week in limiting the New York Jets to 207 total yards in a 24-10 victory.
Vic Fangio's defense had shut down an opponent in both phases earlier in the season -- allowing 276 yards to the Seattle Seahawks in a 24-17 victory and 221 yards in a 16-14 conquest of the Arizona Cardinals -- but not without outside linebacker Khalil Mack.
After losing 31-28 to the Miami Dolphins in Week 6, when Mack was hurt early and was ineffective later, and then losing 38-31 to the New England Patriots when a hobbling Mack mostly was used in coverage, the defense bounced back against the Jets, with Mack missing the first game of his career.
The Bears allowed a season-low 12 first downs and permitted the Jets to convert just 21.4 percent of their third downs, another season best.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio wasn't surprised.
"I (thought) that we would do fine," he said. "Our level of overall play, when you add a player of his caliber into it, obviously is going to be better. But there's still no reason for other guys to not play to the best of their abilities. We'd better off with him, but it shouldn't affect how the other 10 guys play."
Other defensive players have pointed out repeatedly that the Bears had a top-10 defense last year -- without Mack. They proved they still do against the Jets and might have another chance to prove it this week at Buffalo against the Bills.
Mack has yet to practice this week and even if he plays he won't be 100 percent. With or without Mack, the Bears' defense shouldn't have a problem dominating a Buffalo offense that has scored a total of 37 points in the last five games.
"Each individual player has to have the right mindset," Fangio said. "If we get 11 guys on the field doing that, we'll be fine. Obviously, when (Mack) is available, whether it's this week, next week or the following week -- who knows? -- that will help us because he's a quality player, as we all know.
"But that should not affect the way we play as individuals otherwise."
Bears coach Matt Nagy agrees that it's sometimes the mental aspect of playing without a difference maker that affects the group. Nagy knew the defense was stout before he was hired Jan. 8, and it got better through the draft by adding inside linebacker Roquan Smith and defensive lineman Bilal Nichols, and in free agency with the addition of outside linebacker Aaron Lynch.
The trade for Mack on Sept. 1 topped off a yearslong building process.
"I go into the past couple of years, and even last year with the players that are on this team, and what we started building (earlier in the year) before Khalil was even here," Nagy said. "We felt really good about our defense.
"What you have to be careful about is, when a player as good as Khalil joins you and makes you even better, when he's out, how do you mentally handle that?
"Do you feel like, 'OK, we really did a lot of great things those first four games. (But now) he's out.' Or do you say, 'Who cares? Let's go. We've got to step up even more and perform at an even higher level.'
"I think our coaches have done a good job explaining to them: 'We're a good defense. Let's play that way.' It's more about the mindset of it than it is anything else."
The defense wasn't flashy against the Jets. There were no interceptions, no forced or recovered fumbles and just 1 sack. But it was a complete team effort, a formula that works with or without Mack.
• Bob LeGere is a senior writer at Pro Football Weekly. Follow Bob's Bears reports on Twitter @BobLeGere or @PFWeekly.