In the offseason, the hype and anticipation going into Khalil Mack’s third season was extremely high. Raiders’ fans and non-Raiders’ fans alike were looking forward to seeing a new young defender rising into the JJ Watt/Von Miller level of elite defenders and many had already pencilled him in as the next Great Superstar.
Khalil went from 4 sacks in 2014 to 15 sacks in 2015 (2nd in NFL behind JJ Watt) and his offseason work was making everyone excited to see another major improvement. Some went as far as to predict a 20+ sack season.
Expectations for Khalil Mack were not just high, but they were absolutely mind-blowing.
So when Mack went without a sack for the first three games of 2016 and logged only 2 in the first 6, the quizzical murmurs began :”What’s wrong with Mack?”. Doubts crept into some fans minds.
Meanwhile Broncos fans revelled in it as they were able to announce “Von is better than Mack” with impunity.
Compounding the frustration is that the defense was struggling overall and was allowing passing yards and points at or near record paces.
Closer inspection showed that Khalil was doing a lot of really nice things overall and that he was certainly affecting the game, even if it was not measurable on the stat sheet. But it was also clear that there were some differences.
Opposing teams were definitely scheming for Mack in both the run and pass games. Khalil was accounted for on each and every play and had to fight thru multiple blockers, misdirections, and multiple reads. Teams like the Saints were using the Fast Pass offense to quickly
Mack for his own part had spent the offseason improving on his technical skills, but when the “lights came on” there was some adjustment for him; it’s much different trying to play when the offense schemes specifically for you!
And over time, Ken Norton was finding his way in how to help Khalil out with scheme. As a young DC, Norton was learning to assess and adjust to what the offenses were doing in all facets as well as trying to find a way to help Khalil get free.
If Khalil can get going, it helps the entire defense.
In Week 8 at Tampa Bay, Raiders’ fans could finally breathe a sigh of relief. Not only did Mack add 2 more sacks, bringing his total for the season up to 5, but he was making play after play in every phase of the game.
Perhaps most importantly to the communal Raiders’ fans’ psyche was that Mack was making his presence felt in an obvious and very visible fashion. Every fan watching saw Mack terrorizing the Buccaneers offense.
So here is a look back at what Mack was doing and some of the factors that contributed to his monster game.
note : click on GIFs for full resolution GFYs and click on images for full res pictures
First, a few items to mention that don’t show up directly in the clips to follow.
Interestingly in this game, Khalil was given quite a bit of rest. Derek Carr and the offense was able to control the ball in the 2nd half and overtime which allowed the entire defense to sit on the sidelines. But even when the Defense took the field, Ken Norton was rotating Mack out of the lineup.
Mack certainly still spent a great deal of time on the field, but he was given some time to keep fresh while Shilique took his place. The substitutions came early; after playing the entire 1st drive, he came out for a few plays after the first 5 plays of the 2nd drive.
More interestingly was that Jihad was given some snaps in Mack’s place (mostly it was Shilique, though)
Here are some still of Jihad lining up.
Jihad looked a little unsure, which is not unexpected. Also unsurprisingly, Tampa Bay’s offense gained 12, 2, and 7 on those three plays.
Perhaps it was due to the weather conditions in Tampa or it’s Norton’s decision to try to keep Mack fresh, but it certainly felt like he was being given more time off.
In the first 7 games, most opposing teams were forcing Mack to make multiple reads and threaten his assignments and discipline repeatedly; they would also send blocker after blocker at Mack in different ways and keep him working just to get to the offensive tackle.
Dirk Koetter and the Tampa Bay offense seemed to do much less Mack-specific scheming and instead felt confident in their offensive tackles to handle Mack 1-on-1. Even worse, in the run game, they allowed their TEs to block Mack straight up. These generally do not end well for the offense.
This is not to say that Tampa Bay NEVER chipped or double Mack; they certainly did. But it never appeared consistent as a game plan and Mack spent more time free than not.
Most pass rushers will do their damage in bunches. Last year, JJ Watt had a stretch of 9.5 sacks in 5 games; in 2012, Von Miller had 9 sacks in 5 games; last year Mack had 10 in 4 games.
But it’s not just sacks. During a game, you will often see that once a pass rusher makes a play, he’ll often follow it up with a few other plays soon thereafter. Once they find an advantage, they pursue it and press the issue.
So it was with Khalil in this game. There were times when Mack was wreaking havoc in 3 or 4 consecutive plays.
Most general NFL fans have taken note of Khalil Mack because he was 2nd in the NFL in sacks with 15 (5 v the Broncos). But every Raiders’ fan knows that Mack is even more dangerous as a run defender and that he has been dominating that aspect of the game for a while.
In his rookie year, while he was still struggling to learn how to rush the passer against NFL tackles, Mack was already a devastating run defender, often just destroying blockers and killing running backs.
Towards the end of the season, teams were actually running explicitly away from him.
In 2016, as Mack has worked hard to improve his pass rushing skills, it’s great to notice that his run defense has not been ignored. He has improved in that area as well.
v Double Team
In 2016, Khalil has spent more time getting doubled and so he has had to figure out a way to deal with it.
As mentioned earlier, Tampa Bay did not spend much time using double teams on Mack. The Buccaneers spent most of their time in a 3 WR personnel group (11 Personnel) and so they had only 1 TE to deploy.
Early in the game, they used two TEs and had them double Mack.
This is what he did :
Mack’s strength, leverage, and power are all obvious. #88 Luke Stocker has obviously seen it multiple times on tape and so he knows that he has to bring everything at Khalil.
Mack plays off that and here, he uses his agility (and intelligence). He gives a jab step to Stocker and then drops steps away, giving an ole as Stocker whiffs and blocks air. Mack then plants, sets, and then explodes into former Raider Brandon Myers and shoves the TE into the backfield and into the runner.
With the blocking disrupted, Perry Riley and Karl Joseph are able to run free to the ball carrier to finish off the run.
Later, the Bucs try to run again, this time from 11 Personnel. This personnel group (1 RB, 1 TE) lines the TE Luke Stocker in the backfield as a FB.
In this Wide Zone run, the Bucs have Stocker block Mack 1-on-1. Predictably this happens :
Mack’s movement gets Stocker leaning out past his feet and reaching to make his block. That’s not going to do it and Khalil punches him to the ground and makes the tackle.
Later, Luke Stocker gets to line up at the traditional TE position and has another 1-on-1 with Mack. You can guess what happens :
Stocker is assigned to Mack on this Inside Zone run but totally whiffs on the swim move. When Antone Smith cuts back, Mack is free and he crashes down to make the hard tackle.
There have been a few problems with Mack’s assignments and discipline that showed up starting in the Tennessee game. But the defense has really focused on those and many of those problems have been cleaned up.
Tampa Bay did try to use some motion and formations to fool Mack (and Irvin) but to only moderate success. And in many cases, they used the simpler offensive schemes and just ran inside zone or wide zone.
It’s a far cry from when Kansas City had 2 weeks to prepare a specific gameplan!
The pass rush is the Sexy part of Mack’s job, but perhaps just as important is how he helps in other aspects of the pass defense.
On part of his game which has improved in recent times is how he disrupts the TE’s release.
This is an interesting cat-and-mouse game. The TE sometimes wants to help the blocker and so he will chip Mack. But other times, the TE wants to just get out and into his pattern so he can be in position to receive the ball at the proper timing of the play.
When the TE wants to chip Mack, that’s when Mack wants to stay free and attack the QB. But when the TE wants to go free, Mack wants to give him a little bump to help Karl or Malcolm in their coverage.
Often, the LB or S will be playing off coverage on the TE. If the TE gets a free release, he’s able to build up speed and his route running may challenge the coverage defender. But if Khalil is able to give a nice chuck to the TE–perhaps even a little bit of a grab and shake–to disrupt his balance, then that’s a huge advantage for the defender.
Here’s a nice example :
Mack is standing up at the 7 Tech (outside the TE) and Malcolm Smith has coverage on the TE :
Mack chucked and bumped the TE off his route. The TE has to re-gain his balance and then get out into the flat to go receive the pass.
Meanwhile, this gives Malcolm Smith some time to make up that ground and get coverage.
Malcolm makes up about 4 steps on the throw and makes the hit right away to jar the ball free for an incomplete pass.
Here’s the vid :
Mack’s contribution generally gets unnoticed and it doesn’t show up in the stat sheet anywhere, but as you can see, it is very important for the overall success of the defense; this is part of “Team Defense” and that is part of the sync and chemistry that this unit is trying to build.
Cover the QB Boot
Has there been any play more uniformly and continuously frustrating than the QB Naked Bootleg? It started in the Green Bay game in Pre-season and has been a thorn in the defense’s collective paw since.
It’s been nicely defended a couple times (notably by Karl Joseph), but it’s also given up some big chunk yards.
It’s been a trial by fire and the eventual benefit is that by seeing it so often, these players are going to eventually really learn to defend it.
Much of it depends on Khalil.
Tampa Bay tried it on Mack and this is what happened :
Khalil did not anticipate QB Boot, but his read took him to the boot right away. This was his recognition adapting over this first 8 games.
And nice to get a free sack just for reading the defense. It may have been the lowest physical effort play he had all game!
* * *
Definitely the most exciting part of Mack’s performance was his pass rushing and here’s a look at a few of them.
Some scheme stuff
Over the past 2 weeks, it seems clear that Ken Norton and Jack Del Rio have started to look into ways to free up Mack as well as to use Mack to free up other defenders.
Early in the game, as Ken Norton was feeling out the Tampa Bay offensive approach, the defense showed a few plays that showed this.
Early on, the Raiders use this : E/T stunt :
It’s designed to free up Jihad on the outside. Khalil takes an initial upfield move and then crashes hard to the inside, taking the tackle down. This clears the outside and Jihad gets a 1-on-1 with the RG and a free run to the outside.
Unfortunately, Jihad’s stunt-work is still a work in progress and Jameis is easily able to get rid of the ball on time with no pressure.
Still, what we see here is Norton using Mack to feel out how how much attention the Bucs OL are going to pay to Mack and how they will handle a stunt.
Later that same drive, Mack runs this 3 man stunt :
Khalil is in a standup-3 technique. The outside DL Jihad and Denico crash down inside while Khalil loops to the outside.
This 3 Man game is designed to free up Mack; it’s hard to pass of stunts and to track a rusher across multiple gaps like that. And as expected, Mack comes free.
The problem is that it often takes too long to execute and so Mack is free, but the ball is long gone.
Ken Norton was testing out some stunts with Mack early in the game, but interestingly, as the game wore on, he used Mack in stunts less and less. As it became obvious that the Bucs approach was to use 11 Personnel and then leave Mack in 1-on-1s, Norton did not really need to use a stunt, twist, or line game to free up Mack.
If Tampa is going to give a 1-on-1 with Mack, you don’t need to stunt, just let Mack beat the guy in front of him.
There’s an NFL OL Coach who said that he doesn’t like to chip b/c the good pass rushers learn to play off the chip and it leads to some unexpected rush moves for the OT. Most OL coaches will work RB chips into their scheme, but it’s interesting to note that there are some that have this attitude. And if you pay attention to enough plays, you can understand (sometimes) where that idea comes from.
More to the point here, though, is that it’s incumbent on Mack to learn to deal with those chips and to figure out how to play off them and still affect the game.
It’s been a learning process for him. Every pass rusher has to deal with chips and doubles and this year, Mack has experienced many of them. The good news is that he’s improving in that respect.
Here, Mack recognizes the chip and it takes him to LT’s inside shoulder. Mack gets leverage and then drives Donovan Smith back towards the QB.
The key here is that Mack is pass rushing under control. He’s exploding and attacking and violent and all that, but he’s also “not outrunning his eyes.”
Last year and earlier this year, he was so focused on his own moves and the tackle in front of him that the chipper would surprise him and neutralize his rush.
Now, he’s seeing it and able to react and play off that chip.
More about Pass Rushing Under Control later.
The interesting thing about Tampa’s 11 Personnel group and their shotgun formations is that it gave Ken Norton some very predictable protections.
Recall against Jacksonville, Norton blitzed the Safety Reggie Nelson to draw the RB out and make sure that Mack had a clear 1-on-1.
Against Tampa Bay, Norton used a similar approach to draw the RB away and leave Mack with a 1-on-1 on the outside.
Blitz draws the RB
On this play, Ken Norton blitzes.
Malcolm Smith and Perry Riley will both blitz. The RB Jacquizz Rodgers has to drop down and pick up one of them (Malcolm).
If not for the blitz, the RB would be available to chip Mack on the outside. But when the blitz comes, the RB vacates and it leaves Mack mano-a-mano with Donovan Smith.
It’s not just blitz, it’s an inside TT stunt also. Ideally this would get another pass rusher free, either the looping DT or one of the blitzing LBs. It’s actually a really beautiful play design and the Bucs pick it up generally very well.
Mack uses Speed to Power, where he shows an outside rush and then cuts it off and then bulls right thru the LT. QB Jameis Winston breaks contain, but the play still draws a holding penalty.
Malcolm fake a gap blitz draws the RB
This time the LBs show the double A-gap Mug, where both LBs show that they will rush thru the A gaps.
Malcolm draws Rodgers into the A gap to pick up that potential blitz, but both LBs drop back into coverage.
This leaves Mack with a 1-on-1 with Donovan Smith on the outside again. This time, it was only the threat of the blitz that cleared the potential chip and allowed Mack to play faster with the knowledge that he can use the outside speed rush with his newly developing Dip move.
Mack wins the outside and Smith gets just a hand on him. Unfortunately, there is no interior defensive presence so Jameis is able to step up into the pocket to avoid Mack.
If there were someone (say #97) pushing the pocket up the middle, then Mack probably gets a nice clean hit here.
Perhaps most disappointing/embarrassing, Malcolm draws the offsides penalty here on the FAKE blitz (?!)
Very next play :
On the next play, Tampa Bay has an empty backfield with both the TE and the RB split out into wide receiver positions.
Mack again gets that nice 1-on-1 with Donovan Smith and wrecks it. He starts with an outside speed and then counters inside. As he sees Jameis looking to throw, Mack pushes the tackle backwards and gets an arm into the passing lane.
Unfortunately, Darius Latham (lined up outside) and Jihad Ward are losing their rush lanes on the backside and Jameis is able to escape.
Here’s another case where Mack needs just a little help from his mates and the team could have had another sack and instead Jameis scrambles downfield (and then Malcolm gets the personal foul late hit).
This time the Bucs use 11 Personnel and line the RB away from Mack.
This happens :
Mack sees he has a clean 1-on-1 and uses the outside speed with a dip again on LT Donovan Smith. He blows by the LT and gets to Jameis just a moment after he throws the ball.
That’s a vicious move.
This time the Bucs line up with 12 Personnel, 1 RB and 2 TEs, with one of the TEs lined up in the FB position.
Similar to before, Ken Norton calls for a LB, ensuring the RB picks him up and giving Mack an outside 1-on-1.
Perry Riley makes an awesome play here, blitzing up the middle and leaping over the RB’s block; he then just nearly gets the sack.
Mack on the outside starts with an outside speed rush look and then counters to the inside with a Swim move. Khalil comes free and gets a nice hit on Jameis, but just a split second too late for the sack.
For as much trouble as Donovan Smith had, he did not surrender a sack. Both sacks came when Mack lined up on the opposite side.
Stab and then undercut for the Sack :
Mack uses his outside speed and then stabs with his right hand to drive Dotson upfield. Once Mack’s cleared Dotson, he closes on Jameis and finishes the sack.
* * *
Rushing Under Control
Recall earlier I mentioned how Mack was rushing more under control this year.
Here’s a quick look at what that means.
Here is a set still, 1 from each of 3 different pass rush plays :
- One is an Outside Speed/Dip
- One is a Speed-to-Power
- One is an Inside Counter Swim
Imagine you are LT Donovan Smith and you have to diagnose the rush and react to it as quickly as possible.
Can you guess which one is which?
Especially the first two are nearly impossible to distinguish.
Here are follow stills from each play :
A. Outside Speed and Dip
Mack explodes upfield drops his shoulder and gets around the LT.
B. Speed to Power
Mack takes an outside rush then he plants and explodes right into the LT’s chest
C. Inside Swim
Mack jabs hard to the outside and then cuts back to the inside. As he does so, he gets his arm over the top of Smith in a hard swim move to clear him.
Here’s another set, this time from two different pass rushes that Mack gave Donovan Smith.
- One is an outside Speed
- One is an inside Counter
and here are the follow up stills.
D. Counter inside
This is counter back to the inside. Mack plants the outside foot and comes back inside.
E. Outside Speed and Dip
This time Mack goes full speed outside and dips his shoulder to clear the LT and flush Jameis up into the pocket.
One of the biggest things about matchups is “a telegraph” or “a tell”, some kind of a visible, physical clue about what the opponent is going to do.
Khalil Mack is polishing and refining his technique so that he’s giving a neutral look to the blockers and then he’s able to attack in a number of directions. For Runners, we hear about “two-way go”, Khalil Mack uses a “Three Way Go”, he can go up and around, he can cut inside, and then he can bulldoze right thru your chest.
Any wonder why Donovan Smith was having such a tough time?
It also starts to make more sense why pass rushers tend to be so effective in bunches. Once they get the blocker off balance, they have such an advantage. They not only win a matchup, but the moves have set the blocker up so that the next couple of matchups also favor the rusher.
Mack had a great game and it was really fun to watch. Khalil has been effective all year. Even in the New Orleans fast pass game, he chose specific moments to execute his best moves and he got very close to Brees, but just not enough. Khalil has been doing good things all year, but the stats haven’t reflected that.
But it is also true that Khalil has been improving in all areas over the course of this half-season. He’s made some mistakes, he’s been a little confused, he’s been hit, chipped, doubled, and stonewalled from plays too often.
You don’t make steel without fire.
An important step towards his greatness was to start dealing with being treated like a great player. And it appears that he’s taken a big step forward in that. He’s seeing and recognizing those chips, he’s pass rushing under control, he’s seeing and recognizing what the defense is doing and what his assignments are. It’s like the game is slowing down for him again.
One of the more disappointing aspects of the defense so far has been the interior pass rush. The entire defense is paying for it, but specifically Mack’s ability to make more impact plays is minimized because the interior defense was compromised too often.
Part of this is on the players Jihad, Denico, Darius, Dan, Jelly. Part of it is on the coaching. In this game, part of it was from having a few of these players try out new positions (presumably in part because of Stacy McGee’s absence).
In this, it’s safe to say that Mario Edwards’ absence is felt.
On the plus side, Ken Norton is adapting and it’s helping Khalil. Some of the schemes that are being put in place had the very nice effect of giving Mack 1-on-1s. It’s nice if the blitz gets to the QB, but if not, it still leaves Khalil with a very winnable situation on the outside. Expect to see more work to continue to keep the best defender free.
Khalil Mack is ready to get after QBs and just in time for Denver.