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For Rashaad Coward, facing Khalil Mack a trial by fire

We’ve seen what Khalil Mack can do starting right tackles — five sacks, four forced fumbled, 24 pressures, excellent run defense, a pick-six, etc., all in just four games with the Bears. But what it’s like for the guy he goes against in practice during the week at Halas Hall?

“Long days,” Rashaad Coward swiftly quipped. 

Here’s the challenge for the 23-year-old Coward: Learn how to play right tackle against one of, if not the, best edge rushers in the NFL. The Bears flipped Coward from defensive line to offensive line in the spring, identifying his athleticism and frame as traits for offensive line coach Harry Hiestand – who developed four first-round picks at Notre Dame – to mold. His progress was promising from OTAs and minicamp to training camp, and he acquitted himself well enough in five preseason games to make the Bears’ 53-man roster on cut-down day. It didn’t look like he was overmatched by anyone he faced — including Kansas City’s Justin Houston — maybe outside of a few joint practice reps against Denver’s Von Miller. 

That is, until the second practice snap Mack took in a Bears uniform. 

“His second play, (Coward) turned around and gave me the eyes,” coach Matt Nagy said last month, bulging his eyes a bit. 

“I knew he was strong,” Coward said, admitting that it was tough to be relaxed the first week he went against Mack. “The speed caught me off guard.”

Coward, though, has a clear-headed approach to trying to block Mack as he learned the nuances of his new position. He doesn’t get too high on himself if he’s able to stymie him, nor does he get too low if Mack gets past him with his relentless blend of speed, power and technique.  

“Once you go against guys like that, anybody else is like — I don’t want to say a cakewalk, but they’re not going to come as fast or as strong or as quick,” Coward said. 

It’s not just that Coward gets to practice against Mack, though. Mack actively will give Coward coaching points, telling him what he did on a certain move and how, next time, the greenhorn offensive lineman could counter it. 

So when defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said “there’s no prima donna” in Mack, consider that an example. Or, as outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley put it: “I think he understands the impact he can have on so many people in the organization.”

Hiestand, too, is appreciative of Mack’s dialogue with Coward. 

“He gains so much having the opportunity to compete against (Mack),” Hiestand said. “I know they communicate and he talks to Rashaad to help him — hey, you’re giving me this, you’re giving me that. Stay the course, don’t get frustrated. And that really is beneficial.”

The potentially payoff of Coward’s days practicing against Mack may not be realized until 2019. Coward has been inactive for all four of the Bears’ games this year, and it would probably take multiple injuries for him to get on the field in 2018. 

But incumbent right tackle Bobby Massie is a free agent after this season, and if Coward continues to develop the way the Bears want him to, he could be an option — and a cost-effective one at that — to take over as a starter in 2019. If he does, though, these long days facing Mack on the practice fields of Halas Hall will have paid off. 

“We haven’t gone against nobody like that outside of Von Miller,” Coward said. “But it’s good to know he’s on our team.”

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