ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Bears' defense is like the project that wins science fairs. It is multi-dimensional, explosive, if not unnerving.
Chicago boasts stars on all three levels, including Akiem Hicks, Raquan Smith, Kyle Fuller, and Eddie Jackson. But the conversation begins and ends with linebacker Khalil Mack. He remains in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year every season. He disrupts the running game, and spends so much time in the backfield it should be his own personal Airbnb.
"When we first got him, I didn't know much about him," said Broncos coach Vic Fangio when Mack arrived to the Bears by trade from the Raiders a few days before the 2018 season opener. "After a few days of practice, I was like, 'Holy (crap)!'"
Into this backdrop steps Elijah Wilkinson. He will make his first start at right tackle after playing primarily at right guard a year ago. Wilkinson has turned heads this summer with his athleticism and strength. However, the Broncos were counting on him to serve as a utility man, not fill a puzzle piece designated for Ja'Wuan James, who is out roughly a month with a sprained left knee that was covered with a heavy brace in the locker room on Friday.
"I treat it like a nameless, faceless opponent," Wilkinson said. "I don't focus on just 52. I focus on doing my job."
Wilkinson has done that well over the last eight weeks. There was a thought he would push Garett Bolles for the starting left tackle spot in camp. That never materialized because Wilkinson spent the majority of his time filling in for James as the veteran dealt with a calf issue. Wilkinson, nonetheless, has left an impression.
"I think he’s been pretty damn good all training camp and preseason games. Came in the other day and played well," Fangio said. "He had a tough first play, got a little late off the ball, but we have total confidence in him.”
Wilkinson walked a similar path last season, inserted into the lineup after Ron Leary's Achilles' injury. He showed well against the Chargers in Los Angeles. But the difference is that he was inside, not trying to be the gatekeeper against the ferocious Mack.
"It helps that I have started before, that I have played at the stadium in front of that crowd," Wilkinson said. "It gives me a better feel for what to expect."
The Broncos will not reinvent their offense Sunday, but they need to protect Wilkinson and left tackle Garett Bolles by chipping the outside rushers and designing plays for Joe Flacco to throw the ball quickly.
"With the Bears, you just want to stay close. You're not going to go run away from these guys. Last year they led the turnover margin I want to say by — they had 10 or 11 more than anyone else in the league. You can’t plant it in their hand; it's about taking care of the football, it's about being a smart team and being calculated and taking shots," offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said. "But you have to take your shots. You've got to keep them honest, you've got to go up on them, but you've got to do it in a way that allows the quarterback to function and keeps them off of you. I think our line played well. I'm looking forward to the challenge to see where we're at. This is the best measuring stick you'll ever go against. You go hold your own against the Bears, you know where you stand.”