The NFL has a new sack leader, and his team isn’t done yet in the AFC playoff race.
The Raiders expected linebacker Khalil Mack to be a great player—that’s why they selected him fifth in the 2014 draft out of Buffalo. As an outside linebacker in his rookie season, Mack played at a Defensive Rookie of the Year level, although Aaron Donald of the Rams actually won the award. But when new coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. came into the fold before the 2015 season, they had a different idea: They wanted to make Mack a pure pass rusher.
So far, it’s worked out pretty well. Mack had two sacks in each of the Raiders’ past two games before their Week 14 game against the Broncos, but that prepared no one for what he did against Denver. Mack sacked Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler five times as Oakland upset Denver, 15–12. It tied the franchise record for sacks in a game, set by Howie Long in 1982, and put Mack atop the NFL sack leaderboard with 14. No matter where he was coming from against Denver’s offensive line, it was an absolute mismatch, and Mack proved once again that he’s one of the most dynamic and versatile young defensive players in the league.
It shouldn’t be that much of a surprise, because Mack was a stellar pass rusher in college, putting up 28.5 quarterback takedowns in his four seasons with the Bulls. Now, turned loose on the NFL in that same role, he’s been a nightmare to stop.
In this game, the Raiders needed all that Mack could bring. Oakland’s offense was held to minus-14 yards at the end of the first half, and quarterback Derek Carr completed just 12 of 29 passes in the game, although he did manage two second-half touchdowns. One of Mack’s sacks was for a safety, and the Raiders almost recovered Osweiler’s fumble in the end zone.
“Well, he was unbelievable," Del Rio said after the game. "He’s just getting better and better, and he’s a great young man. I didn’t realize he actually had five sacks on the day. I knew he was awesome. I knew he made a big play for the safety, and I knew he went back there. I thought three maybe four, but I didn’t realize it was five, so really tremendous effort by Khalil. Defense overall, forcing field goals and allowing us a chance to hang around in that game, and then us as a team coming out in the second half and getting it done. We’re really proud of our guys.”
Mack was just as complimentary about his head coach.
“During the halftime break, he knew we could make that push in the second half," Mack said of Del Rio. "He believed in us. Coach Jack doesn’t really let too much get to him. He keeps us calm, keeps us poised. He has a swagger about him, and he knew and believed in us. And knowing that he believed in us pushed us and [drove] us to go out and get it by any means we could.”
If the Raiders want to make the postseason with their 6–7 record and inconsistent offense, it could be on Mack to put up this level of play every week. Don’t count him out from doing just that. Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall is certainly a believer.
"That guy is an animal," Marshall said of Mack. "There was a lot of talk about him this week. I’m big on the NFL Draft, so I’ve always watched the NFL Draft and I remember when he came out, I was watching him and different things like that. I remember thinking, ‘OK, this guy can do something.’ But, I was watching on the sideline and thinking, ‘Man, this guy is an animal.’ He definitely had a game, I would say that, a career game for sure.”
A career game so far, but who knows what the ceiling is for Khalil Mack?