Khalil Mack's rookie season, while relatively productive, had to be a little frustrating for him. I know because I got frustrated just watching the Raiders' defense at times last year. Early on the problem seemed to be that they didn't know what to do with Mack, defensive end Justin Tuck and rush linebacker LaMarr Woodley, all new additions to the team in 2014. When it became apparent that Mack needed to start -- even if that meant Woodley had to go to the bench (this all became moot after Woodley got hurt) -- the question seemed to be whether the Raiders' defensive staff wanted to run a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. Something seemed to change from week to week.
If this sounds a little absurd, it should. That's part of the reason the Raiders had a hard time winning games last year and why that coaching staff was dismissed. Enter new head coach Jack Del Rio, who came over from Denver, where he had this guy by the name of Von Miller -- you may have heard of him -- who shares very similar physical characteristics with Mack.
That had to be like a late Christmas present for Mack: a coach who knew exactly how to maximize his ability and put him in the best position to make plays, just like he did with Miller. When JDR announced that Mack would be rushing the passer almost every play I couldn't have been more excited to see how his second season in the league would turn out.
I admit to being a little bit giddy.
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Just before the season started the Raiders signed former 49ers rush linebacker Aldon Smith and all of a sudden, at least in my mind, things changed a bit for Mack. Whereas Mack was about to head into the season as the unquestioned best edge rusher on the team, here was Smith, who was still pretty damn good at rushing the passer, to take some of shine. Not that it was necessarily a bad thing, but Smith usually rushed from the right side, which pushed Mack over to the left side to rush most of the time.
In the long run, it probably made Mack a better overall pass rusher. It was obvious he was good rushing from the right, but more rushing from the left would just make it harder for teams to key on him when he flipped sides. The left side also just so happens to be the side Miller tends to rush from the most. However, people tend to think of a team's best pass rusher rushing from the right side, so I wondered if Mack and Smith would have a problem coexisting.
My worries were unfounded early on as both guys played pretty well and seemed to genuinely celebrate each other's successes on the field. The Raiders were 4-5 through the first 10 weeks, which wasn't great, but in fairness three of the losses were by a combined 11 points. Along the way, Mack picked up a very respectable four sacks while Smith had 3.5 of his own. There was every reason to believe these two could turn into a pretty dynamic duo as long as nothing changed.
Things did change, however.
The hammer finally came down on Smith for his off-field incidents, and poof, just like that the Raiders had lost half of an edge rushing tandem that had been wreaking havoc in opponents' backfields. It's a damn shame, too, because Smith had notched a sack in both of the previous games and looked to be rounding back into form before the suspension. But as Riley Freeman says, "You gotta pay what you owe."
What has happened with Mack's play since Smith has been out, aside from that first game after the suspension was announced, has truly been sensational. Yeah, he had the five sacks Sunday, and we are definitely going to get to that, but he also came away with four combined sacks in a win over the Titans and a loss to the red hot Chiefs in Weeks 12 and 13.
In case you graduated from Alabama, that means Mack has come home with a ridiculous nine (!) sacks in the last three games. To say he was on fire coming into the game against Denver this past Sunday might have been an understatement unless you mean old school NBA Jam "on fire," which in that case the observation would've been spot on.
Somebody should've warned Michael Schofield and Ryan Harris.
The Raiders' 15-12 win in Denver was a tale of two halves for both teams teams and for Mack himself. You do realize he notched all five sacks in the second half, don't you?
Shit crazy, bruh.
It's not like Mack played poorly in the first half -- he had two tackles, an assist and a third-down pressure that helped force a field goal before the halftime. In the first half, however, Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler was able to get the ball out of his hands quickly, which didn't give Mack or anyone else much time to get to him. That combined with the Oakland offense's inability to get things going led to a 12-0 Denver lead at the half.
In the second half, however, Mack was damn near unblockable. Now, let me say right off that he was helped by Osweiler's footwork getting screwed up after halftime. I thought maybe the Raiders switched up their coverages or something, but it seems like they ran the same stuff they were running in the first half: cover 3, man-to-man and a little cover 2.
What changed was Osweiler. In the first half, he was dropping back about 7-8 yards, at the most, and then he would take a crow hop forward to step into his throw. In the second half, he started dropping back 9-10 yards, even on plays that didn't have a play action element to them. Because of that, he usually didn't have time to take a crow hop forward because Mack was already on his ass.
You may recall that I awarded Von Miller my Hoss Of The Week for his play against the Chargers last week. Mack's tape against the Broncos looked eerily similar. Just like I mentioned with Von, Mack is on the smaller side, yet he's still a very good power rusher. I saw some folks comparing Mack to Derrick Thomas (which makes me think those folks need to go back and watch more Derrick Thomas tape) during the game, but Miller is probably the more apt comparison. When Thomas had multiple sack games, he mostly used speed rushes, whereas four out of Mack's five sacks on Sunday came off power.
If you read my earlier columns and/or follow me on Twitter, you likely already know about my affinity for the "long arm" pass rush move. It's perfect because pushing the offensive tackle -- I'd never recommend it as a move against interior linemen -- with your inside arm gives the appearance and feel of a power rush, but it still allows you to keep your outside arm free to help escape off the block or, in Mack's case, reach out and grab the quarterback before he can throw the ball.
That's exactly what he did to notch his first sack on the third-and-5 play with 8:52 left in the third quarter. It's also what he did to get his second sack along with a caused fumble in the end zone, which ended up being a safety near the end of the third quarter. Both times the victim was Schofield, the Broncos' second-year right tackle.
Mack once again employed a long arm on his third sack, but this time with an added twist.
With Denver facing a second-and-7 from the Raiders' 34-yard line, Mack came off and got into Schofield's chest again with his inside arm. Osweiler went back to his normal drop that time, however, so going around the corner for a sack was not an option. Thankfully the long arm move is so versatile that it also allows you to transition to an inside rush if the situation calls for it, and that's exactly what Mack did.
It kind of ended up looking like an old school hump move like you might have seen Reggie White employ back in the day, but it's even more striking coming from Mack, who is "only" 6'3 and around 250 pounds. I think Osweiler either didn't see or was scared to throw to one of his teammates who was wide open on a seam route versus cover 3, but like I said last week, he who hesitates is lost. Osweiler didn't pull the trigger so Mack ended up putting him on his ass again.
After a 5-yard reception by Vernon Davis on third-and-8, Broncos kicker Brandon McManus missed a 49-yard field goal and the score remained 15-12.
Scroll back up and look at the final score again just in case you had forgotten.
Mack's fourth sack was a bull rush. I kinda feel like everybody bull rushes, but what he did to Harris, Denver's left tackle, was anything but normal.
Rushing on the right edge Mack, like Miller last week, saw that a back was ready to chip him as he pass rushed. Just like Miller again, Mack elected to go right down the middle of Harris so he wouldn't have much exposed surface where the running back could actually hit him. Unlike Miller, Mack ran slap the hell over Harris, who looked like he had been hit by a bus walking across a street blindfolded with his shoe strings tied together.
It was uuuuuuugly!!! I know Harris had to dread going to meetings on Monday to watch that film.
Low key, maybe the most impressive thing about the play is that running back Ronnie Hillman still tried to get a chip on Mack after he ran over Harris, but it was too little, too late. That chuck did nothing to stop Mack's momentum as he took Osweiler down for a loss of 9 yards. After a 10-yard completion and a drop by Davis, the Raiders forced a turnover on downs.
That sack came on second-and-6 with the Broncos at their own 37-yard line with 4:51 left in the game by the way.
Okay, so Mack went power all those times in the second half, but you had to know eventually he would come back with a speed rush. Boy, did he.
It wasn't exactly his first speed rush of the game, of course. Mack actually got a pressure on Schofield with a speed rush with a little over seven minutes left and the Broncos facing a third-and-4. However, that last sack with 1:56 left on the clock was basically a game-ender.
Yet again Osweiler did his right tackle no favors as he dropped back 9 yards then tried to run away from Mack to avoid the sack.
Mack blew by Schofield and snatched Osweiler before he could make it all the way out of the pocket, capping off a magnificent game for him.
I had Mack with nine total tackles -- including the five sacks and a tackle for loss -- two other pressures, a caused fumble and he also forced a holding penalty on Davis. That's half a season of big plays for some guys all in one game. Just as important, they came when his team needed them most. With Smith serving out his suspension, Khalil Mack has picked up the slack and then some. That's why he was the easy choice to be my Hoss Of The Week for Week 14.
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SB Nation presents: The best and worst of Week 14, from Doug Baldwin to Dez Bryant