Mack The Knife: Oakland’s Blossoming Star

The Oakland Raiders will likely miss the playoffs again this season, but for the first time in a while there is reason for optimism on both sides of the ball. Brian Filipiak looks at Oakland’s blossoming star pass rusher, Khalil Mack.

Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack ripped off five sacks in the second half against the Denver Broncos, spearheading a defensive effort that held their AFC West adversaries to just four field goals in a 15-12 win in Week 14. The dominant performance vaulted Mack into the league-lead, with 14 sacks on the season and three games left on the schedule. The 2014 fifth overall draft pick has blossomed into a destructive force, quickly ascending to one of the most feared – and praised – edge defenders in the NFL.

Few have more creatively described Mack than Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson: “He’s fast, he’s sudden, he’s strong, he’s got spin moves, he’s got karate moves,” Jackson told ESPN earlier this season. “The guy is a rolling ball of butcher knives.”

Yes, “a rolling ball of butcher knives.” It’s the type of aggrandized description that makes no sense… at least until you watch Mack slice through an offensive line with T-1000-like fluidity and determination.

Playing 74 of 80 defensive snaps in the game, Mack used power and speed, often combining the two, to torch any and all opposition in his way. But no one felt the defender’s wrath more than Broncos right tackle Michael Schofield.

Second Half Adjustment

Mack was held in check during the first half, garnering only one pressure and one hit on the quarterback in 21 pass rush attempts, as he alternated evenly between right [11 times] and left [10] outside linebacker. Adjusting at halftime, the Raiders aligned Mack almost exclusively on Schofield’s side in the second half. In just 14 pass rush attempts against the right tackle in the second half, the linebacker sacked quarterback Brock Osweiler four times, while adding an additional pressure and QB hit.

Overall, Mack had 38 true pass rushing attempts in the game. He was on the field for 17 running plays and dropped into coverage 19 times. This includes read rushes where he opted to stay engaged with a tight end near the line of scrimmage and/or screen plays. The defender finished with seven tackles (five sacks, one solo, one assist), three pressures, and two non-sack hits on the quarterback. He forced eight negative plays totaling a net loss of 49 yards for the Broncos offense.

Throughout the course of the game, Mack displayed all the physical traits and football IQ that made him a top five pick. He consistently re-set the line of scrimmage through his first-step quickness off the snap, bringing a mammoth initial punch with him while staying relentless with his hands. He processed plays fast only to react even faster, showing exceptional body control and change of direction speed. And he demonstrated a large impact radius on the field, tracking down ball carriers from behind and seamlessly dropping into zone coverage.

Once the ball of butcher knifes got rolling, the Broncos had absolutely no way of slowing down its momentum.

Karate Moves

Mack is a versatile pass-rusher that understands his craft extremely well. He’s a technician with his hands and footwork, and he sets up his moves and counters by reading the positioning of his opponent. He isn’t a one-trick power/speed pony ‒ he’s more like a kung-fu master.

On 3rd and Goal late in the second quarter, Mack foreshadowed his explosive second-half-to-come:

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Aligned as a 9 technique, Mack takes advantage of an isolated Schofield (#79) as part of the Raiders standard four-man pass rush ‒ a common theme throughout. The defender fires out of his three-point stance with near gravity-defying lean, converting speed into power before executing a sequence of “karate moves.”

By attacking Schofield’s outer-half first, Mack forces the right tackle to commit and lunge a little early. As the blocker looks to engage, Mack starts his transition to the inside, slapping away Schofield’s grasp with his outside hand and then using his near arm to redirect the blocker, literally spinning him to the ground. Although a half-second late from truly impacting the play, Mack make his presence felt with a love tap on Osweiler as the pass falls incomplete.

But Mack’s karate moves were just getting started on the day. Early in the fourth quarter, the defender used active hands in concert with great footwork to beat Schofield for a sack on a critical 2nd and 7 from the Oakland 34-yard line:

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Starting from an even wider position because of the inline tight end, Mack reaches the quarterback despite the elongated path into the backfield. Although the Broncos slide the pass protection to Mack’s side, Schofield is still left one-on-one with the pass-rusher. The right tackle commits to the outside speed rush and starts to lunge forward, becoming top heavy in the process.

Mack counters inside, using his hands to clear free from Schofield’s attempt to engage, using an inside arm club to redirect the blocker. The defender swings his hips across Schofield and slips through for the sack, setting up a missed field goal two plays later.

Read & React

More than just a pass-rusher, Mack also exhibited his ability to quickly diagnose the screen game and then use his athleticism to get back into plays. Defending a 3rd and 3 from the Denver 31-yard line, the outside linebacker trips up wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (#88) on a tunnel screen, setting off a chain reaction ending in a fumble recovered by Oakland:

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Again rushing from a wide 9 technique, Mack bursts off the line but almost immediately identifies the quick pass by reading the screen release by the offensive line and / or Osweiler’s quick turn toward his target. The defender brushes off Schofield’s club to the back and rapidly changes direction, first trying to bat the pass attempt down at the line before pivoting around and tracking the receiver. Mack dives ‒ fully outstretched ‒ for Thomas’s legs, reaching out with his hand to cause the ball carrier to stumble. Inside linebacker Ben Heeney (#51) then whacks the ball loose on the tackle attempt before the receiver hits the ground, giving Oakland the ball in Denver territory.

Mack also correctly diagnosed a slip screen to the running back later in the game, initially jamming the tight end on a delayed rush before peeling off and fronting Hillman just past the line of scrimmage, forcing a throwaway by Osweiler.

Mack Speed

Denver spent most of the game running away from Mack’s side with little success (17 carries for 28 yards). When the run direction did head his way, Mack out-leveraged blockers and out-raced ball carriers, such as on this 2nd and 10 from the Denver 11-yard line late in the third quarter:

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From a balanced formation, the Broncos attempt an outside zone / stretch play with the blocking action heading toward Mack’s 9 technique alignment. The defender meets tight end Owen Daniels (#81) off the snap, shooting his hands into the blocker to create space. Mack pulls down on the tight end’s inside shoulder and matadors the off-balance Daniels. With penetration gained into the backfield before the mesh point even occurs, running back Ronnie Hillman tries to bend the run back behind his center. However, Mack has other plans. The defender turns the corner and swiftly closes in for the tackle resulting in a one-yard loss.

In the fourth quarter, Mack displayed more of his closing speed, this time as a pass rusher on a 3rd and 4 from the Denver 20-yard line:

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The Raiders execute a three-man game on a pirate stunt that has the right defensive end and defensive tackle crashing left with the opposite side defensive tackle looping around to provide backside contain. The pressure machination up front leaves Mack on an island with Schofield, who receives no help from the running back on his release into the flat.

Mack angles his rush wide and uses his third step to plant and push off toward Schofield’s outside shoulder, while also aligning himself on a direct path to Osweiler. The linebacker uppercuts through the arm of Schofield on a rip move and slightly dips his inside shoulder to get around the block. Osweiler’s late side-step in the pocket gives him time to throw and avoid the sack, but he still takes a hit from the defender.

Mack Power

Even before Mack’s second-half feasting, the defender disrupted his share of plays early on. Here, a late shift in alignment and a show of power at the point of attack torpedoes the Broncos wide zone toss on a 2nd and Goal from the six-yard line:

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Just prior to the snap, Mack shifts to an outside shade over tight end Vernon Davis (#80) within Denver’s bunch formation to the right. The change in positioning creates a difficult blocking angle for Schofield, while also tasking ‒ perhaps unintentionally ‒ wide receiver Jordan Norwood (#11) with a difficult combo block on Mack.

The Broncos don’t appear to block this play correctly, possibly because of Mack’s pre-snap movement, and the defender takes full advantage. He collapses the outside gap despite the tandem block, spilling the ball carrier backwards first and then wide. Mack maintains outside leverage and stays above the running back’s pads, turning Hillman back inside into the teeth of the defense. Heeney is once again the benefactor of Mack’s strong play as he reverses field to bring down Hillman for a six-yard loss.

Once the second-half arrived, there was seemingly no stopping Mack, who continuously unleashed a devastating long- or straight-arm maneuver on Schofield, such as on this 3rd and 5 from the Denver 25-yard line:

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From his wide alignment, Mack explodes forward off the snap using an outside speed rush. By his third stride, Mack turns in order to get perpendicular to the blocker’s shoulders, making himself a smaller target. He punches the chest of Schofield with his inside arm fully extended, locking out the blocker and removing any length disadvantage. From there, he churns his legs and uses his inside hand like a swivel, flipping his hips around the right tackle on his way toward the QB for another sack.

While Mack is known for having a quality spin move – which he used sparingly against Denver – few are better than him at executing the long-arm bull rush.

A Tale of Two Chips

The Broncos rarely provided help to Mack’s side ‒ a questionable strategy. When they did aid their offensive tackles in the form of an in-line tight end, Osweiler saw slightly more time in the pocket.

On 2nd and 9 from the three-yard line late in the third quarter, the Denver quarterback avoids complete disaster in his own end zone thanks to a chip block on Mack at the line of scrimmage:

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Although tight end Virgil Green (#85) barely grazes Mack on the chip and release, he does slow down and widen the pass rusher’s path into the backfield. Mack bull rushes Schofield, walking him back like a blocking sled. But Osweiler has enough time to get rid of the ball.

Facing a third and long on the next play, however, the Broncos ditch the in-line tight end formation and opt to put wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in the backfield out of an H-back alignment behind right tackle. The result:

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Working with a clean rush lane as Sanders releases freely into the flat area, Mack bursts free and uses the inside straight-arm against Schofield. With only Mack’s inside shoulder pad available to him because of the long-arm maneuver, the right tackle is unable to fully latch on. The defender swings around the blocker and reaches out with his outside arm to swipe the ball loose. Osweiler recoils and initially hangs onto the ball, but a determined Mack engulfs the QB, eventually punching the ball out with his other hand for the strip sack safety, cutting the Denver lead to a field goal at 12-9 with a quarter to go.

Put Your Ice Skates On

But even with help, the Broncos offensive tackles had little chance holding up while waiting for Osweiler to make a decision in the pocket. On this 2nd and 6 from the Denver 37-yard line late in the fourth quarter, Mack gives Schofield a breather, instead lining up against left tackle Ryan Harris (#68) from his wide alignment:

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Mack drives ahead using his second stride to feign a speed-based rush to the outside. This action forces Hillman ‒ who stays in to block on the six-man pass protection ‒ to step up toward the overhang defender. However, Mack pivots toward the inside on his third step, attacking Harris’s inside shoulder. In the process, Hillman loses his blocking angle on the defender.

Mack shoots his hands and helmet into Harris’s chest, catching the lineman with a wide base at contact. The defender puts the left tackle on skates, finishing the disengagement with a straight-arm. Mack easily absorbs the block by Hillman, seemingly using its momentum to pick up steam on the drive-altering sack. The Broncos would turn the ball over on downs two plays later.

No Containment

There was no containing Mack in this game. No matter the matchup, no matter the defensive side he lined up on, no matter the amount of blockers thrown his way. It seemed as if holding him was the only sound strategy on the day:

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Beaten badly to the outside, Davis has only one option to combat Mack’s kung-fu: a lariat straight out of the WWE. The finishing maneuver draws a well-deserved flag ‒ which Mack, of course, catches on the fly like Mr. Miyagi. The ten-yard penalty on the outside zone play leads to a quick three-and-out halfway through the fourth quarter.

Closing Time

On the Raiders final defensive series, Mack capped off his efforts with his fifth sack, using a speed-rip move to chase down the quarterback:

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Aligned over air outside the tight end, Mack has a long way to go. He arcs toward the QB with tremendous speed, using his outside arm to club away Schofield’s reach. He then rips with his inside arm to clear the blocker with ease. Virtually unimpeded into the pocket, Mack soars through the air to drag down Osweiler for the final time. Two plays later, victory is sealed by Oakland following another turnover on downs by Denver.

In eight second-half drives by the Broncos, Mack forced a negative play or hurried pass attempt in each of them, with three occurring on critical third downs. He followed up his herculean effort versus Denver by recording his 15th sack of the season against the Green Bay Packers in Week 15.

Amid Hue Jackson’s creative commentary on the “rolling ball of butcher knives” was a less noteworthy, but far more apt, description. “He can play,” said the Bengals offensive coordinator. Brock Osweiler, Michael Schofield, and the Denver Broncos would surely agree.

Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.

Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense,  how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.

All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.

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