Four games into the season, Khalil Mack finally picks up his first sack—but his impact goes so far beyond the stats. Plus our power rankings going into Week 5

By Jenny Vrentas
October 04, 2016

BALTIMORE — Sitting on a stool in the visitors’ locker room, Khalil Mack hardly wanted to make a big deal about his first sack of the season. But here he was, being asked about it in Week 4, three weeks later than the outside world had expected. Describing how the play had happened, Mack offered a glimpse into why sacks won’t come so easily this year.

“Came off a chip block,” he said, with a smirk.

In the fourth quarter of the Raiders’ validating 28-27 win over the Ravens, Mack lined up on the left side of the defensive formation. As he rushed the passer, tight end Dennis Pitta delivered a textbook chip, shoving Mack to the outside before proceeding on a pass route. Mack quickly recovered, ricocheting back inside and using his right hand to throw away right tackle Rick Wagner. Then, for the first time this season, he played matchmaker between a quarterback and the turf.

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After a 15-sack season in 2015, opponents know they must pay special attention to Oakland’s third-year defensive end. Take Sunday’s game: On 52 pass plays for which Mack was on the field, including two-point conversions and plays called back by penalties, the Ravens chipped him with a tight end or back eight times, and devoted more than one blocker to him on 15 other plays. Said another way, the Ravens employed extra resources toward stopping Mack on nearly half the pass snaps he played—and on more than 50% of third-down plays.

Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack picked up his first sack of the season against the Ravens in Week 4.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

“It’s been an adjustment because it is more consistent focus on me now,” Mack said. “It’s been pretty regular, but people don’t see those things when you just look at the stats. You only see those things when you watch film. You have to fight through it.”

Mack’s adjustment is symbolic of a Raiders defense—and team—trying to grow into its expectations for the 2016 season. Optimism is high with a young core comprised of Mack, quarterback Derek Carr and wideout Amari Cooper, plus an offseason free-agent bankroll that was heavy on defensive starters (OLB Bruce Irvin, CB Sean Smith and FS Reggie Nelson). But that stocked defense surrendered more than 1,000 yards over the first two games of the season, and the Week 3 win over the floundering Titans came down to the wire.

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Nelson called those early weeks “an embarrassment,” something that “definitely put a fire up under me.” The scrutiny begged the question: Was the offseason spending spree a bust, or did the new defensive talent need time to coalesce? Irvin advocated for the latter, drawing on his four seasons with the Seahawks. “It takes a while,” he said. “In Seattle, it took us a long time to be who we were.”

That’s why Sunday’s win in Baltimore was so significant for the Raiders. The defense wasn’t perfect, letting the Ravens back into the game late in the fourth quarter (Steve Smith Sr.’s 52-yard touchdown pass was enabled by two missed tackles). But those new pieces came up with enough plays for a win: Irvin strip-sacked Joe Flacco; Smith picked off a two-point conversion attempt in the end zone; and Nelson ended the game by delivering a perfectly legal blow to receiver Kamar Aiken, jarring loose a fourth-and-10 pass to stop the Ravens from getting into game-winning field-goal range.

Two weeks ago, Mack called a players-only meeting so players on the NFL’s 32nd-ranked defense could air their grievances. He started with himself, and the fact that he needed to do his job better, no many how impediments stood in his way to the quarterback.

“We gained a respect for each other, and a knowledge that you’ve gotta count on the guy next to you,” Mack said. “I was one of the guys that was like, Man, I am going to do my job no matter what, even though I was frustrated with some of the stuff we were seeing. And everybody else made it known what they were frustrated with. We sucked it up, and we are moving forward with it.”

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On the field, Mack again led the way. He found ways to affect the offense no matter what stood in his path. With the Ravens missing starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley and left guard Alex Smith, the Raiders often schemed for Mack to rush from the defensive right side, either going directly at fill-in left tackle James Hurst or stunting inside against fill-in left guard Ryan Jensen. On Irvin’s sack-fumble, Mack ran right past Hurst and flushed Flacco from the pocket, while Irvin beat his man to strip the QB.

Mack used a combo of moves—spin, swim, power—to elude chips and squirm free from double-teams all afternoon. He ended back-to-back Baltimore drives in the first half by drawing holding calls on Hurst, whose only chance of stopping Mack was to illegally bear hug or headlock him. Told the Raiders had drawn four offensive holding penalties on the Ravens, Mack quipped, “Four? Probably at least six, but…”

On that final fourth-and-10 play, with the game’s outcome hanging in the balance, Mack had no chance to get to the quarterback. The left tackle, a tight end and a fullback all stood in his way. But that, of course, is affecting the play in its own way. The defense bent but didn’t break, and the 3-1 Raiders headed back to the West Coast having sent a message. “It says this team is a contender,” Mack said.

The Fine 15

1. Denver (4-0). LW: 2. It was the Broncos’ turn to withstand a QB injury. No problem. They expect Trevor Siemian to be back next week.

2. Minnesota (4-0). LW: 3. You have to feel bad for Blair Walsh, but man, it’s amazing that with all the roster blows they’ve taken, the Vikings’ biggest weakness right now is kicker.

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3. New England (3-1). LW: 1. Didn’t understand how no one thought it was possible for Rex Ryan’s Bills to stifle a third-string QB with a thumb injury. Honestly, it would have been surprising if they couldn’t. Now, it’s on to Cleveland—with Tom Brady.

4. Green Bay (2-1). LW: 4. Good for Mike McCarthy pointing out that people expecting Jordy Nelson to simply pick up where he left off—in his first live games since the 2014 NFC title game—were “unrealistic.” The bye week was as good for Nelson as for anybody.

5. Philadelphia (3-0). LW: 6. Carson Wentz has passed every test that’s come his way so far. Next up: four of the next five games are on the road, including three division contests.

6. Pittsburgh (3-1) LW: 7. We know the offense is good. The best news for the Steelers on Sunday night was that the defense looked aggressive, physical—and a whole lot better than the unit that gave up 34 points to Wentz and the Eagles in Week 3.

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7. Seattle (3-1). LW: 9. The gentleman sitting next to me on my Amtrak train home from Baltimore on Sunday evening kindly asked me to “write something nice about my Seahawks.” That’s not hard to do. Here’s one: The Jimmy Graham who takes over games has finally returned. 

8. Atlanta (3-1). LW: 13: During training camp Matt Ryan was adamant that a second year in Kyle Shanahan’s offense would be much smoother than the first. He wasn’t blowing smoke.

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9. Raiders (3-1). LW: 17. Derek Carr was gushing about a receiver after the game, and it wasn’t Amari Cooper. The fact that Michael Crabtree has become another go-to weapon is great for this offense.

10. Baltimore (3-1). LW: 5. Sloppy loss that could have gone either way, but the Ravens have some flaws that the Raiders exposed. Namely, the offensive line.

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11. Houston (3-1). LW: 16. Their best player is out for the season, and their $72 million QB is making too many mistakes. But take heart, Texans fans. You’re still in the AFC South.

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12. Chiefs (2-2). LW: 10. My pithy analysis is this: The Steelers had a dud against the Eagles. The Chiefs had a dud against the Steelers.

13. Cincinnati (2-2). LW: 14. Vontaze Burfict came back just in time to chase after Ezekiel Elliott.

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14. Dallas (3-1). LW: 15. Elliott and Dak Prescott were partying with Snoop Dogg after the Niners win, per TMZ. Life moves pretty fast when you’re a Cowboys rookie.

15. Los Angeles (3-1). LW: 18. Now would be a good time to announce that Jeff Fisher extension, eh, Rams?

Also receiving consideration:

16. Bills (2-2). LW: 20.
17. Carolina (1-3). LW: 8.
18. Giants (2-2). LW: 12.
19. Arizona (1-3). LW: 11.
20. Washington (2-2). LW: UR.

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