It took Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack until Week 4 to get his first sack this season. For a player who ranked second in the league in sacks last year, behind only J.J. Watt, it was seen as an uncharacteristically slow start.
In his past three games, though, Mack has recorded four sacks, including two last Sunday against Tampa Bay in one of his more disruptive games of the season. And that prompted one defensive teammate to make a cautious prediction this week.
“He’s been disruptive every week, to me,” fellow linebacker Bruce Irvin said. “You guys don’t see the film that we see. The guy, he’s a monster. He wreaks havoc every week, and he has to be accounted for.
“Three straight games he’s had a sack? It’s that time of year where he’s about to get it rolling, and it’s really exciting to see.”
Nobody knows Mack’s explosive abilities better than this weekend’s Raiders opponent, the Broncos. Late last season in Denver, Mack tied a franchise record with five sacks in the Raiders’ 15-12 win – compiling a third of his season total in 60 minutes.
Mack, though, was the first to point out that he’ll line up against a different offensive front Sunday at the Coliseum. Denver has two new tackles this season – Russell Okung on the left side and Donald Stephenson on the right – with Michael Schofield, whom Mack dominated off the edge in Week 14 last season, shifted inside to right guard.
Mack’s target, meanwhile, is now second-year quarterback Trevor Siemian, with Brock Osweiler gone to Houston.
“It’s a different team, man, different personnel,” Mack said this week. “So it’s going to be a new challenge, new focus.”
While Mack was not getting to the quarterback as often earlier this season, an apparently unconcerned coach Jack Del Rio assured reporters Mack would “get his numbers.” It was under Del Rio and his first-year coaching staff last season that Mack’s sack total jumped to 15 – from four in his rookie season under Dennis Allen, who was fired four weeks into the season, and interim coach Tony Sparano.
“I think when we got here we really sought to bring him forward more often,” said Del Rio. “We feel like he’s going to be at his best going forward. Not that he won’t drop (in coverage) occasionally, but previously I think he was spending a lot of time in drops.”
Despite starting all 16 games as a rookie, Mack did not record a sack until his 10th game and had just one multisack game.
“In skelly (pass coverage), he’d be dropping,” Del Rio said. “He wasn’t working one-on-one pass rush, wasn’t developing that skill level. You can have all the talent in the world, but it takes skill to rush the quarterback along with that talent. And we’ve just been working on that skill level. He’s growing and growing and getting better and better.”
It can also take time to reach the quarterback, and Mack this week said his recent sack numbers are a reflection of the entire pass defense playing better. The Raiders lost top cornerback Sean Smith early in the first quarter last Sunday but still held Tampa Bay to 168 passing yards and gave Mack time to chase down Jameis Winston twice.
“Long as they’re communicating on the back end, you have a little time to get there,” Mack said. “That’s what you’ve been seeing the past few weeks.”
Fittingly, Mack’s five-sack performance last December came against a Broncos team consistently among the league’s best in recent years at pressuring the quarterback.
Pro Football Focus gauged Mack and Denver’s Von Miller as the two best rushers off the edge in the NFL last season. And while Miller shone with five sacks in the playoffs as the Broncos galloped to a Super Bowl title, PFF judged the less established Mack as having been the better player during the 2015 regular season.
Mack this week said he studies other pass rushers, including Miller, Aaron Donald and Aldon Smith, but shrugged off the comparisons to Miller.
“Not really a comparison thing,” he said. “Two different schemes, two different players. But we try to do the most to put our team in a position to win, and that’s what you see.”
Miller ranks second in the league with 8 1/2 sacks, part of a Broncos defense tied for first in sacks (26) and quarterback hits (75). Mack described his counterpart this week as “a hell of a rusher.” Miller said Mack’s five-sack game last year “just speaks to the volume of the type of player that everyone knows he can be.”
“He’s a great player,” Miller said on a conference call this week. “I haven’t really been paying a ton of attention to him, but whenever I do see him on the film, he’s making plays. He’s a great player, one of the elite linebackers in this league.”