ALAMEDA (AP) — With the game on the line, the Carolina Panthers sent three blockers in Khalil Mack’s direction to no avail.
He overpowered Trai Turner, beat a chip attempt by running back Fozzy Whittaker and then knocked the ball out of Cam Newton’s hands for a game-sealing strip sack before guard Chris Scott could get over to help.
Those types of plays are becoming commonplace for Mack, who has put together quite the encore following last season’s historic campaign when he became the first player ever picked as a first-team All-Pro at two positions in one season.
With sacks in six straight games, his first career interception and first career touchdown last week and relentless pressure every game, Mack is a major reason for this year’s success for the Raiders (9-2) and perhaps the league’s most dominant defender.
“I think him and Von Miller are the two best in the league right now, the two best edge pass rushers and they can do it all,” Bills coach Rex Ryan said on a conference call ahead of Buffalo’s game against the Raiders this Sunday. “That’s what I’m seeing from him, a guy that can play with speed, power, finesse. You name it, he’s got it. When you look at those two, they’re the only two, in my opinion, that are comparable.”
Mack has showed continual improvement since coming into the league as the fifth overall pick out of Buffalo in 2014. He made a big impact as a rookie in Oakland although he only managed four sacks. He added a few new wrinkles last year and boosted his production to 15 sacks, including five in one game against eventual Super Bowl champion Denver.
This year, he’s doing it all. From his athletic interception and return for a score last week against Carolina to his nine sacks to his 60 quarterback pressures which lead all edge rushers, according to Pro Football Focus, to his new role as defensive leader now that Justin Tuck and Charles Woodson have retired.
Mack gives motivational talks before games and has come up with the motto “By any means” that his teammates have adopted as the mantra for this year’s Raiders.
“Even though I’m a younger player, I’m just stepping in and doing my part and my role,” he said. “It’s all about that for me. There are still a lot of things we have to do better defensively. That’s what’s on my mind right now.”
That perfectionist streak helped Mack grow from a player who got near the quarterback so often as a rookie but was unable to generate sacks to one who leads the NFL in that category the past two seasons with 24.
He has done it despite constantly getting extra attention and recording just one sack the first five weeks.
“I think the production has come and the stats have come to where everybody else recognizes what he’s been doing, but to me he’s been really good,” coach Jack Del Rio said. “Khalil is a rare combination because he’s a supremely gifted athlete, but he’s got terrific work ethic. This guy comes out and busts it every day for us. He’s a great teammate. He’s humble. He can bring it and he brings it every day. That’s why I had the confidence I had that someday the numbers would come.”
For Mack, the personal numbers mean far less than the team’s success. He took it personally when the defense got off to a rough start, allowing more than 500 yards in each of the first two games of the season and ranking near the bottom of the league in most categories early.
But there has been improvement lately, especially during a five-game winning streak that has carried Oakland into a tie for the top spot in the AFC with New England.
Even when the defense gives up big plays, it has been stout late. Oakland has faced nine drives this season in the final five minutes of regulation or overtime when tied or leading by eight points or fewer and allowed no points on those possessions.
The latest came in the win over the Panthers when the Raiders blew a 17-point halftime lead only to rally from eight points down to go up 35-32 before Mack’s strip sack ended the comeback attempt.
“You just see him go out there and he does exactly what he says he’s going to do,” quarterback Derek Carr said. “He does exactly what he does out there at practice. He’s not a guy that just comes out here, shows up and shows up on Sunday and says, ‘Yeah, I’m just freakishly talented and I’m going to make all the plays.’ Which, he very well could, but I think what separates him is his work ethic.”
(corrects Trai Thomas to Trai Turner)
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