Aug 27, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack (52) attempts to rush past Tennessee Titans offensive tackle Jack Conklin (78) in the second quarter at Oakland Alameda Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
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Oakland Raiders 2014 first-round pick Khalil Mack is off to a slow start this year. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. seems not to know what to do with him.
Last year, many compared him to legendary Lawrence Taylor because he dominated the game so much. He was a dominant edge rusher with 15 sacks and he dominated against the run. He was among the league’s leader in tackles for a loss.
Pro Football Focus graded Mack as the top edge defender over Von Miller. But now, the analytics group has him rated as an average edge defender. Many either wonder if or believe that something is wrong with the two-positon All-Pro from 2015.
But the problem isn’t Mack’s, it’s everything around him, including his coaching staff. The situation he was in last year was made for him to succeed so he did. Some of what’s slowing him down can’t be helped but the staff can help him.
Turn the page to see what’s going wrong and how to fix it.
August 30, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Arizona Cardinals offensive tackle D.J. Humphries (74) blocks Oakland Raiders defensive end Mario Jr. Edwards (97) during the fourth quarter in a preseason NFL football game at O.co Coliseum. The Cardinals defeated the Raiders 30-23. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Mario Edwards Jr.
A big part of why Mack isn’t producing on the level he’s capable of is Mario Edwards is out. He won’t be back for at least another three weeks as he’s on IR/Designated to return with a hip injury. Even Taylor himself had Leonard Marshall inside of him at 3-4 end.
Doesn’t make the biggest statistical impact on the for but he makes a huge impact on Mack. There is a direct correlation between Mack’s production and Edwards’ presence. Last year, Edwards dominated inside from the fifth game of the season to the 14th.
And during that 10-game stretch, Mack had 12 sacks and hasn’t sacked the quarterbacks without him since. Edwards is too strong for tackles and too quick for guards so opposing offenses must game-plan for him. And game-planning for him means they can’t triple-team Mack.
Opposing teams have the guard waiting for him the inside of the tackle and a running back outside. That leaves the center and the opposite guard to block the two inside guys one on one. But when Edwards is in the game, opposing teams can’t do that.
August 30, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders outside linebacker Khalil Mack (52) at the line of scrimmage during the second quarter in a preseason NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals at O.co Coliseum. The Cardinals defeated the Raiders 30-23. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Out of Position
The Raiders had an All-Pro and one of the most dominant players in the league at SAM. Mack was only voted All-Pro at defensive end because when at his best, he only played it on third down. Last year, he started the season not sacking the quarterback much.
They had him at the LEO position they have him at now and he’s not the same there. I wears on him to run up against a 330-pound player on every play. But when the Raiders moved to the 3-4, Mack took over games from the SAM position.
It made the run defense better to because he destroyed tight ends and got in the backfield for tackles. Most running plays go to the strong side, where the tight end is. So once Mack beat the tight end, he could jump inside or out for a loss of three.
And dealing with tight ends instead of big tackles, helped him keep his energy to rush the passer. LEOs are long like Charles Haley to deal with tackles on every play. But Mack is more like Taylor, a dominant 3-4 outside linebacker.
It’s two different positions with two different body types, which is why it didn’t work for Mack last year. Playing your best football player doesn’t help your defense. You’d think defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. would have learned from last year.
Sep 11, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Oakland Raiders linebacker Bruce Irvin (51) strips the ball from New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) in the first quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Upgrade on the Other Side
When I wrote an article about moving Bruce Irvin to inside linebacker, people went crazy. They talked about how great of a pair he and Mack would be coming off the edges. But that’s not going to happen because Irvin’s 4.5 speed doesn’t make him a great pass rusher.
Many were swearing to God that he just didn’t get a chance to rush the passer enough. Irvin had eight sacks as a rookie but first-round picks aren’t let out of town if they’re great pass rushers. He was moved to linebacker because he wasn’t that good of a pass rusher.
Irvin got by with his speed in when he was in college and in his rookie year. But as soon as tackles overset for him, he had no answer. The one sack he has this year came when New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees held the ball for five seconds.
Shilque Calhoun has better pass-rush moves and puts more consistent pressure on the QB than Irvin. He should be at the LEO until Aldon Smith can come back. Irvin isn’t doing anything with all the one-on-one blocking he’s getting.
But he was a good last year, playing off-the-ball linebacker in packages for the Seahawks.That speed be put to use in the running game and in coverage. I’m trying to figure out how playing your best football player out of position for Irvin is worth it.
Sep 18, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack (52) stands on the field before the start of the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
The Raiders can’t control when Edwards or Smith can come back but there are some things they can control. You simply don’t put your most dominant player in a position he doesn’t fit in. He’s a dominant 3-4 SAM, just like Taylor was back in his day.
They have the same playing style just like Smith’s playing style is just like Haley’s. We didn’t see Bill Parcells try to turn Taylor into a hybrid like Hayley back in the day. He allowed Taylor to be Taylor, a SAM that can blitz and rush the passer on passing downs.
Parcells also didn’t bring in a cover linebacker at darn-near $10 million a year to play his position. I like Irvin but that was a colossal waste of money. He get’s one on one blocking all day so he should have at least four sacks by now.
Either way, the Raiders need to stop trying to accommodate Norton and his boys from Seattle. The Raiders defense needs to be all about Mack so they should go back to more 3-4 looks. When the Raiders did that last year, the run defense and pass rush improved.