Bears at the Bye: Khalil Mack fueling team's LBs in 2019

Bryan Perez
NBC Sports Chicago

Sometimes, one player can be the difference between an average, middle-of-the-road team and a legitimate playoff contender. The Bears are evidence of this after flipping their roster from a promising squad with upside to a preseason favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl because of the impact made by Khalil Mack.

Mack's Bears tenure kicked off in the most remarkable of ways in Week 1 against the Packers last season. In case you've forgotten, here's a quick refresher and just one of Mack's many highlights that night:

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Mack made his mark with Bears fans in that rivalry game less than one week after GM Ryan Pace's trade with the Raiders, a move that continues to be his watermark moment. 

Most of the hype surrounding this year's Bears team was due to Mack and how much he's elevated the players around him. Chicago was arguably the best defense in the NFL last season, and aside from Week 5's shocking loss to the Raiders, they've lived up to their reputation in 2019.

Mack, especially, is having a great season. He's the Pro Football Focus' highest-graded player on the Bears' defense (90.7) and is the NFL's highest-graded edge defender with a minimum of 100 snaps played. His pass-rush grade (91.5) is tops in the league and he's seventh in total pressures with 29. 

But let's go beyond the analytics for a moment. Mack is just a monster. He's a flat-out beast. Double-teams don't work, triple-teams stand little chance. He's a quarterback's worst nightmare and the greatest thing that's happened to this franchise since Brian Urlacher. With Mack on the field, the Bears always have a chance.

Opposite Mack is fourth-year pro and former first-round pick, Leonard Floyd, who after a hot start against the Packers in Week 1, hasn't made much of an impact as a pass rusher. He hasn't recorded a sack in four straight games and has just 11 total pressures this year. Now 27 years old, Floyd is who he is at this point: a solid all-around outside linebacker who, in spurts, can provide a spark as an edge rusher. But it appears safe to say he isn't destined to become the Von Miller-type edge rusher he was expected to be by the Jon Fox regime. It doesn't feel like he was worth the ninth overall pick in 2016, either.

The Bears could do a lot worse than Floyd, but their chances at a Super Bowl would certainly increase if he can get on a hot streak down the stretch.

At inside linebacker, veteran Danny Trevathan has been everything the Bears for and more when he was signed as one of Pace's first big free-agent acquisitions in 2016. He's having another strong year against the run and in coverage and had one of the real highlights of the season when he lulled a Broncos offensive lineman to sleep with an elite pass-rush move that turned into a sack.

Trevathan's steady presence both on the field and in the locker room has been a key to Chicago's turnaround in recent seasons, and his play in 2019 is falling right in line. He has the Bears' fourth-highest pass-rush grade and the fifth-highest tackling mark. He has seven quarterback pressures through five games, which puts him on pace to tie his career high (22).

Then there's the curious case of Roquan Smith, the suprememly talented second-year linebacker who entered 2019 as a player ready to take his place among the elite names at his position. Then came the mysterious situation in Week 4 when Smith was deactivated with no explanation from the team or Smith himself. And while speculation ran wild on Twitter and other social media platforms, it's still unclear as to what really happened. Hopefully, Smith is OK and whatever was going on at the time is behind him. 

Between the lines, Smith hasn't been great. He's one of the flashiest players on the field, often shooting the gap like a runaway missile and arriving at the ball carrier before any other Bears defender. But he's struggling on plays when it's not so obvious where the ball is or where it's headed. This is especially true in pass coverage, where he's given up 20 receptions on 26 targets (76.9 percent completion rate) for 205 yards. Not great. He was especially bad against the Raiders when Derek Carr when 6-for-6 for 63 yards when targeting Smith.

The one positive that came from Smith's unexpected absence in Week 4 was the play of Nick Kwiatkoski, who proved he has starter's ability during the Bears' shutdown of the NFL's leading rusher at the time, Dalvin Cook.

Kwiatkoski didn't receive any reps on defense against the Raiders, and when considering how poorly Chicago's defense played in that game, it has to make you wonder whether he should be given more opportunities to play, especially with Trevathan's future a big question mark right now. Trevathan is in the last year of his deal and Pace will have to choose between him and Kwiatkoski as the linebacker he commits to in 2020 and beyond.

Overall, the Bears' linebackers have played well and have capiltalized off of opportunites created by the team's stout defensive line. Could Mack use a little more pass-rush help from Floyd? Absolutely. Does Smith have to become a more consistent all-around football player? Yes, no doubt. But this is an extremely talented bunch, who through five games this season, have proven once again to be one of the NFL's elite linebacker units.

Bears LB grade at the bye: B+

Bears at the Bye: Khalil Mack fueling team's LBs in 2019 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

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