The Raiders have one of the NFL’s worst defenses, but they might have the league’s best defensive player. No one carries a unit singlehandedly, but defensive end/outside linebacker Khalil Mack comes the closest in the league.
The Raiders are riding a six-game winning streak and are now 10-2, tied with the Patriots for the best record in the AFC. On offense, Derek Carr is putting up huge numbers (24 TDs, 3,375 passing yards, 100.3 rating, six game-winning drives) and has established himself as Oakland’s franchise quarterback. Carr is a legit MVP candidate. But perhaps Mack, taken one round earlier than Carr in the Raiders’ excellent 2014 draft, ought to get consideration too.
Oakland’s defense entered Week 13 with the seventh-worst DVOA in the league. They’ve given up more plays of at least 40 yards (13) than any other team, and only the Eagles (47) and Giants (46) have given up more plays of at least 20 yards than the Raiders’ 45. Yet Mack is still thriving, and making you realize how much worse things would be without him. He keeps making game-altering plays by himself.
Mack lines up both with his hand on the ground—like a classic defensive end—and as a stand-up linebacker. It’s easy to get confused about exactly what position he plays because he rushes the passer, plays the run, sets the edge, and drops into coverage. Per Pro Football Focus, he has 49 total pressures on 252 pass-rush attempts. That breaks down to nine sacks, four hits, and 36 hurries, and a pass-rush productivity rating of 15.5, second only to Von Miller’s 16.6. But Mack’s been doing his damage even after starting the season in something of a slump, albeit one exacerbated by the number of double- and triple-teams he was seeing. In recent weeks, however, there’s been no stopping him, both as a pass rusher and as a run stopper.
Like Miller, Mack has proved adept at beating blockers every which way. Here he is blowing up a LeSean McCoy run on Sunday, even as the Bills tried to pull Richie Incognito in his direction while also trying to use fullback Jerome Felton as a lead blocker:
The Raiders overcame a 15-point second-half deficit against the Bills, and they pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 38-24 win because Mack tipped the ball coming out of Tyrod Taylor’s hand. Mack feinted inside before using his speed and hands to get around right tackle Jordan Mills and get to Taylor:
And here’s Mack negating an attempted chip block by running back Mike Gillislee by bull-rushing his way through Mills. The result was a strip-sack of Taylor:
It wasn’t the only time Mack straight-up ran right through Mills to get to Taylor. See here:
Despite this dominance against Buffalo, Mack’s tour de force game came a week earlier in a win over the Panthers—a game in which the Raiders allowed 32 points. At the end of the first half, Mack had a pick-six that happened because he sniffed out a screen pass:
And on the game-ending final series, Mack simply made one big play after another. Here’s one in which he almost got to Cam Newton after tossing right tackle Trai Turner aside like a Nerf ball:
Now—holy shit!—watch Mack use a lightning-quick spin move around Turner to force Newton into rushing an incompletion:
The win was sealed when Mack beat Turner by first using his hands to get leverage outside (and drawing blocker Fozzy Whittaker) before quickly darting inside to slap the ball away from Newton. Mack then recovered the fumble himself, just for good measure:
Mack’s footwork was on display in Week 9 on this outside-in move to get around the Broncos’ Donald Stephenson:
And Stephenson was utterly helpless on this strip-sack because Mack feinted going outside, then inside, before finally beating him back outside. Note Mack’s hand speed in using a swim move to avoid letting Stephenson engage him:
Mack has shown the ability to make plays even when he’s not the one finishing them. Here he is lined up opposite the left tackle and getting outside to team with DE Denico Autry to force Tyrod Taylor into panicking and stepping into a James Cowser sack:
As gaudy as Mack’s numbers are, they don’t fully reflect his impact. Bruce Irvin, the Raiders’ other outstanding pass rusher, got credit for the pressure on this play, but it only happened because Mack kept Cam Newton contained by spinning off a double team to hold the edge:
The comparisons to Von Miller are inevitable. Miller was last year’s Super Bowl MVP. Mack last year became the first player in league history to be named an AP All-Pro at two different positions (outside linebacker and defensive end). Sam Monson of PFF recently did a pretty good breakdown comparing Miller’s game to Mack’s, and the biggest difference is Miller’s ability to angle his body to fly around the edge, but Mack has a more compact build. And what he’s doing is every bit as disruptive as what Miller did during last year’s playoffs and the Super Bowl. Miller really came on last year during the postseason. Mack figures to get his chance to show what he can do in January, too.