Eagles will have a plan of attack for Chicago Bears’ Mack — but will it work?

January 6, 2019

There’s probably not a whole lot to glean from watching the tape of the Chicago Bears’ meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles last season, we figured, which was a 31-3 Eagles victory in perhaps the Bears’ worst showing last season.

A different Bears head coach. Vastly different offense. Heck, a different Eagles team in some regards, too.

But there was something from last season we thought might be worth looking at, and that was how the Eagles dealt with Khalil Mack late last season. On Christmas Day, the Eagles and Oakland Raiders faced off in Philly, and it was a strange, ugly game overall with 15 accepted penalties and seven turnovers combined.

Mack didn’t exactly fill up the stat sheet that night, but there were a few eye-opening things — good and bad — for how the Eagles handled Mack. Watching their gameplan for him that night, I think I have a good idea how the Eagles will treat him in Sunday’s Bears-Eagles matchup at Soldier Field, and it’s fair to say that the Bears will have more to counteract that than what the Raiders did a little more than a year ago.

Mack was on the field for all of Oakland’s 67 defensive snaps (including penalties), and what stands out in watching that game is how little he switched sides. Bears fans might be well-accustomed now to seeing Mack line up rushing from both the left and right, but in this game with the Raiders he was almost exclusively on one side. Mack rushed only six times from the defensive right side, with two of those snaps coming on back-to-back plays on the final defensive series of the game,

This season for the Bears, Mack’s left-right split is about 52-48, so it’s just as likely he’ll go up against LT Jason Peters (or backup Halapoulivaati Vaitai) as it is that Mack will face Lane Johnson, who was his main combatant in that Christmas 2017 meeting.

We charted every snap from that game, and Mack and Johnson — sometimes receiving help — locked horns on 42 of those plays by our count. A quick look at the stat sheet might give the appearance that Johnson dominated that battle, with Mack only earning four tackles, one QB hit and zero sacks. But we dug deeper and saw Mack earning some wins that didn’t show up in the box score.

Johnson was guilty of three penalties in the game, all three when he was going head up vs. Mack. All season in 2017, Johnson committed 10 penalties, so Mack in part earned 30 percent of those. Johnson had one false start and two holds called against him, although the first of those holds felt a little ticky-tacky to us; the second was a blatant hold on a play run through Mack’s gap, so it was a clear infraction.

Overall, Johnson did have success containing Mack — especially in the early going. The Eagles helped out by pulling OGs Brandon Brooks and Chance Warmack in Mack’s direction, and they also employed TEs Zach Ertz and Brent Celek (now retired) and RBs Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement. It’s not a stretch to say that Mack was pretty well shut down in the first quarter.

But as the game wore on, his impact waned. In the second quarter alone, Mack drew the false start and both holds and also pressured QB Nick Foles on two throws. The Eagles countered with a few more double teams (and even one triple team, although Mack that came on a stunt with a three-man rush) and by throwing quick passes, including a few screens, to Mack’s side.

It’s worth noting that the Eagles struggled badly on offense in this game vs. a so-so Raiders defense overall, gaining only 3.5 yards per play, converting 1-of-14 third downs and being held to 10 points for the first 59-plus minutes of the game. The Eagles prevailed, 19-10, with a late field goal off a turnover and with a defensive TD in the final seconds.

Mack was part of that effort. He started heating up more as the game went on, even with such a high volume of defensive snaps. Johnson earned several stalemates in one-on-one situations, and the veteran Celek even batted about .400 against Mack on the five reps we had them going head to head.

But there was a clear difference in Mack’s role in this game under former Raider defensive coordinator John Pagano and what Mack has been asked to do with Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio for most of this season when Mack was healthy. Only one time in the game did the Raiders isolate Mack on Vaitai, the replacement left tackle, which felt like a missed opportunity to us.

Mack often rushed from a 7- or 9-technique alignment from the left side, and he used a variety of rushes: speed moves to the outside and inside; bull rushes; tackle-end stunts et al. On the handful of occasions he kicked to the right sides, he was unleashed a few of them in a 3-technique or a 4i alignment, over Warmack at guard. But ultimately, those snaps ended up not bearing much fruit as there was little opportunity to make plays on those reps.

Although Jason Peters, one of the best to play the position the past decade, is now back at left tackle, he’s listed as questionable with a quadriceps and has been unable to finish every game, with Vaitai replacing him. The Eagles also could be starting Isaac Seumalo at left guard, even though he is listed as questionable with a chest injury.

If it’s Peters and Johnson at the tackles, I would be shocked if Mack doesn’t move around a lot to both sides. Eagles head coach Doug Pederson will ask his backs and tight ends to chip, as this game shows, but his preference is to leave his talented, experienced tackles to block one-on-one quite a bit. The idea is to give Foles as many options in the passing game as possible, although Pederson admits that blocking Mack with one person every play simply isn’t a 60-minute option.

“One on one, you’re not going to slow him down,” Pederson said this week. “It’s going to [make] you to do different things with tight ends, do different things with running backs. It can force you to change your thinking.”

But if Vaitai — who played every snap in place of the injured Peters in that 2017 game — on the field on Sunday, Fangio should give Mack chances to beat him with quickness as many chances as possible. The massive Vaitai can get his paws on blockers and neutralize them, but he absolutely struggles against speed. Interestingly, the 36-year-old Peters has never faced Mack in his career, so there’s no tape to look at between them.

We surely will see Mack vs. Johnson plenty on Sunday, however, and it should be a showcase showdown. Johnson might have started this season not playing to his typical All Pro level, but he’s appeared back there in recent games to us. We’re talking about one of the more athletic right tackles you’ll see in the NFL, able to slide and mirror against the rush, get out on screens and also lead the way in the run game.

Johnson had success locking out against Mack early, preventing him from unleashing his patented long-arm rush that has confounded so many blockers the past four-plus seasons. Mack also was slowed down a few times beautifully, including one play where Johnson faked a punch but settled into his pass set knowing he had Clement on his outside hip with chip help.

Watching their cat-and-mouse battle last season in Philadelphia shows how tough and savvy Johnson is, but it also reveals how Mack adapts his pass-rush plan as a game goes on. When Johnson stymied a few inside moves, Mack mixed it up with a spin move (only one time we saw him use that move all game) and a beautiful dip-and-rip in the fourth quarter that led to Mack pressuring Foles, even though his pass was complete.

Earlier in the game, on a third-and-4 in the second quarter, Johnson handled that spin move we mentioned, but Mack made his impact felt by sticking with the slow-developing play. Foles flushed out and Mack stuck with him, and you can see Foles use his peripheral vision to keep one eye on Mack as he stepped up to throw. The pass was incomplete, and you’d have to think that Mack’s pressure — and Foles losing his eye discipline for just a split second — had an effect on that.

Sunday’s battle will be far bigger than Johnson vs. Mack. There will be 20 more players on the field at any time when the Eagles have the ball, after all, and the Bears still can win a game in which Mack is held in check with all the prowess they have on defense. But there’s little question, having seen this matchup a little more than a year ago, that the Eagles will have a plan for Mack — no matter where he lines up. That’s the kind of respect he earned in Oakland and only has enhanced since arriving in Chicago.

The question now is: Will the Eagles’ plan work?

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