ALAMEDA (AP) — The sacks that had eluded Khalil Mack in a strong season for the Oakland Raiders are no longer missing.
They’re coming in bunches instead.
Mack had a franchise record-tying five sacks in last week’s upset win in Denver in a dominant performance to cap an impressive three-game stretch that has displayed all of Mack’s abilities.
The strength to overpower tackles who outweigh him by more than 50 pounds, the speed to get around those lumbering blockers and the developing repertoire of moves that help him get to the quarterback have made Mack one of the most feared defenders in just his second year in the league.
“Hard work pays off,” Mack said Wednesday. “You go out and you work on your craft every day and every week, so when you see it working on the stat sheet, it’s pretty cool to see.”
With nine sacks in the past three games, Mack has moved into the NFL lead with 14 on the season and is two shy of tying Derrick Burgess’ franchise record set in 2005. This recent barrage has come after fellow pass rusher Aldon Smith was suspended, which should have helped offenses focus on Mack.
But with the more refined pass rushing moves to add to his impressive physical traits and the freedom to line up in different spots, Mack has become a menace to opposing teams after recording just four sacks last year as a rookie.
“He’s just really understanding what he can do,” teammate Charles Woodson said. “He can go out there and he has the ability to get around guys or go through them. He’s really just figuring out he can do that pretty much at his will. That’s bad for opposing offensive lines.”
While he provided constant pressure and was stout against the run as a rookie, the lack of sacks bothered Mack and changing that was a major focus for this season.
Now he is the total package. To go along with all the sacks, Mack also has 52 quarterback knockdowns and hurries, according to STATS, tied for third most in the league. He also ranks in the top 20 in run tackles behind the line of scrimmage, showing the all-around versatility that has made him a building block for the improving Raiders (6-7).
“He’s spending more time going forward this year. I think that helps,” coach Jack Del Rio said. “I think he’s had more time just refining the skill level necessary to rush the quarterback at the highest level.”
Mack took over the game in Denver in the second half, taking advantage of mismatches against tackles Michael Schofield and Ryan Harris. It started when he brought down Brock Osweiler for a 10-yard loss to force a punt on Denver’s first possession of the third quarter.
He added a strip sack for a safety later in the third quarter and then three more sacks in the fourth quarter to thwart Denver’s comeback attempt. He even added a tackle behind the line in the run game to show that he is more than a one-dimensional pass rusher.
“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,” Denver linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “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.”
Despite playing college ball at Buffalo, Mack impressed enough to go fifth overall in the 2014 draft. But he wasn’t the first pass rusher taken, going four spots after the more heralded Jadeveon Clowney went first overall to Houston.
But Mack had more sacks in one half last week than Clowney has in his entire career and figures to get plenty more the way things have gone of late.
“The way he can get around the corner and bend and get low to the ground — those sort of things — it kind of reminds you of Derrick Thomas,” Woodson said. “I remember playing Derrick Thomas my first game in the NFL against the Chiefs and he had six sacks against us. Khalil kind of reminded me of that.”
NOTES: RT Austin Howard (knee) missed practice. ... S Nate Allen returned to practice after missing last week’s game with a knee injury.