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How much can Bears DC Fangio expect from LB crew against Packers?

September 7, 2018

LAKE FOREST — Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has much more talent at his disposal than he’s ever had in four years in Chicago.

But three key members of Fangio’s gifted crew — all linebackers — will not be at full strength in Sunday night’s season opener against the Packers in Green Bay.

OLB Khalil Mack, he of the 36.5 sacks over the previous three years; and rookie ILB Roquan Smith, the eighth overall pick in the draft, didn’t participate in training camp or the preseason. OLB Leonard Floyd, the ninth overall pick in the 2016 draft, is playing with a protective club over his fractured right hand.

So how much can Fangio reasonably expect from that trio, which is expected to be among a core group of players capable of elevating a Bears unit that was No. 10 in yards allowed in 2017 into the stratosphere of top NFL defenses?

“You know, it’s a little bit of an unknown,” Fangio said. “Everybody’s a little different. The game’s a little different. (Rams DT) Aaron Donald was in that same predicament last year, signing right before his first game that he played with a new defense, and he played 48 plays. Some other guys have played in the 20s. I think everybody’s an individual, but it’s something we’re going to have to manage and keep an eye on.”

Donald ended his unsuccessful holdout a day before the Rams’ opener last year and played in his first game eight days later. Mack, who was acquired by the Bears on Sept. 1, will also play in his first game eight days later — at Lambeau Field. Donald went on to win the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2017.

It’s unlikely that any of the Bears’ troika will play 48 snaps, but each could easily play 20-30 and provide a harbinger of what to expect going forward. Expectations are already through the roof for many victory-starved Bears fans, who have been pounding the navy blue and orange Kool-Aid since Mack came aboard. Mack says that’s all OK, but it’s not about expectations.

“It’s really not about changing the perception,” the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Mack said. “You can’t really base things on perception. You want to go out and actually make the impact. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing. Just bringing the things that I can bring to the game. That comes with taking away the ball and giving the offense a short field.”

The more the three-time Pro Bowl player is on the field, the more effective he will make everyone else on the defense, especially Floyd, who’s learning to play with the club, which he also had to do as a freshman at Georgia.

“I feel great. I’m out there (practicing) with a club on, trying to get used to having that on so I can be ready Sunday,” Floyd said. “It’s a difference, like if I’m trying to reach and grab for a tackle. I’ve really just got to find a way to make the tackle.”

With Mack in the game, and Floyd playing with the encumbrance, he’s unlikely to see many double-teams, which could give him additional sack opportunities.

“They’re going to have to choose,” said Floyd, who has 11.5 sacks in two seasons despite missing 10 games with injuries. “It’s going to be somebody up front getting doubled, and whoever ain’t doubled has got to make plays.”

Even with their playing time limited in Week One, the Bears’ less-than-100-percent linebackers will benefit their teammates and give the Packers’ offense multiple concerns.

“Any time you add a good player … he makes other players better,” Fangio said. “Just like good corner play will make (Mack) better, good ILB play will make everybody better. It’s a chain reaction, domino effect and hopefully that’s what we’ll see.”

The Bears drafted Smith to provide more than good ILB play, but he was coy regarding his expected playing time in the opener, leaving the call to coaches and trainers.

“You have to do what’s best — not just for right now,” said Smith, who has not been listed on the injury report all week. “It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. So whatever’s best, I feel like those guys know, and I’m going to just trust those guys.”

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