Sack mastery: Is Khalil Mack just a freak athlete?

Natural ability does not tell the whole story of the Chicago Bears’ newest edge rusher

Mack sacks Rodgers: Video screen grab of Dec. 20, 2015 Green Bay Packers at Oakland Raiders game.

Check out the short video of Khalil Mack sacking Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in their only previous meeting (a 30–20 Packers victory over Mack’s original team, the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 20, 2015).

You can be sure the Packers did. Just as soon as they learned Mack would be joining their division foe and week one opponent a mere week before kickoff. Previously, Mack has sacked the Pack. Once.

What can we learn from this one event? Plenty. First off, it was only one sack on the day. Some might call that a victory in and of itself against a player who would be crowned NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the 2016 season. Mack is ultra explosive. Scary good. Also keep in mind that while the Packers prevailed, their victory was greatly aided by a first-quarter pick-six by then Packers cornerback Damarious Randall, which tilted the game for the Packers early on.

Despite the Packers’ superior firepower and a defensive score, Aaron Rodgers’ day against the Mack-led Raiders defense was ho-hum, at best. His stat line: 22–39, 204 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception. That’s a well-below average day for Rodgers.

But that sack.

What happened on that play? Mack’s athletic ability is apparent, but that’s not why he got Rodgers on the play. Other factors figured at least as heavily.

Let’s not diminish his athletic talent. Mack demonstrated his customary speed, power, change of direction and springs as he successfully lunged for Rodgers’ ankle as the quarterback attempted to skitter by. He got him, to Rodgers’ surprise and demonstrable frustration as he slammed the ball on the ground after the play ended.

But talent alone won’t get you an Aaron Rodgers.

Should we fault Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga on the play? Ultimately, he let his man put him and his quarterback on the ground, so yeah. We can ding Bulaga, a mere mortal, for a minus on the play. But Bulaga is one of the NFL’s better right tackles and kept his quarterback clean for the vast majority of the game. But it all went the Raiders’ way on this one play.

Film study

Bulaga managed immediately to push Mack upfield, which is where Mack was going anyway. But Mack knew Rodgers’ tendencies to slide sideways against hard-charging, wide-setting defensive ends. Mack effectively baited Rodgers into sliding his way.

How do we know this? Notice Mack’s path and immediate reversal of direction. Mack changes course before Rodgers even starts to drift toward Mack. All Mack had to notice was Rodgers’ eyes scanning the right side of the field. Mack knew where Rodgers was going.

Mack’s deliberate hard stop and reversal, apparently, occurred quicker than Bulaga anticipated. Mack, in fact, was spinning away from Bulaga before he even initiated his single-arm punch that sent the off-balance Bulaga flying. Bulaga, for his part, tried to jab Mack a split second after Mack had already dipped and changed direction, leaving Bulaga lunging off balance. Mack’s little shove meant the surprised veteran was left to continue upfield alone, no longer restrained by having his feet under him. Face plant.

Mack, meanwhile was gone. Back where he came from with an angle on Rodgers, whose focus was still downfield while he headed directly where Mack was A) going and B) knew where Rodgers would be.

Mack probably also knew something else. The Packers were spread out on this play, with only running back Eddie Lacy in the backfield with Rodgers as protection. No tight end. As it played out, Lacy remained on the opposite side of Rodgers and thus could not be expected to come across and help out Bulaga on Mack.

Seen from another, more isolated angle:

Scheme

That’s Mack. But Mack also was helped by his Raiders teammates, even though this looks to many like a simple man-on-man victory over Bulaga. Watch the Raiders’ front line’s paths at the snap. Notice that left defensive tackle Denico Autry barely engages the Packers guard and then immediately vacates to his right (he is running a stunt with right defensive end Benson Mayowa).

Mack’s upfield rush and Autry’s sideways sprint left a huge void — one Rodgers could not miss. And the Mack trap was set.

Mack knew Rodgers would know where Mack was headed initially. He further knew that Rodgers would not miss the huge chunk of field presented immediately before him on the weak side of the formation. Had Autry been ordered to maintain lane discipline and protect his gap, Rodgers likely would not have slid right and then (tried to) sprint out in front of Mack. Too much traffic.

Packer error

Also a factor: The Packers hurt themselves here by not putting the running back in a position to chip Mack. Rodgers has full freedom to move his protections in the backfield and could have (should have) sent Lacy to Bulaga’s side to chip on Mack. As it played out, Lacy stayed on the opposite side, hit nobody and drifted late out of the backfield away from Rodgers’ path, becoming a non-factor. Rodgers should have placed Lacy to his right, knowing the Raiders’ best pass rusher had a one-on-one situation.

Rodgers also hesitated a bit. Had he been more decisive in his effort to flee the pocket … no sack. He probably couldn’t believe how much green grass he was seeing.

End result

Yes, Khalil Mack is a freak athlete. A generational talent. Left one-on-one, he can be unblockable. Which is why nobody does that very often. The Packers gambled and lost on this particular play, but this was not solely Mack’s victory.

As good as he is, Mack is not going to win every match-up against Bulaga or whomever he lines up against. Barring injury, Bulaga will win more than he will lose against Mack as the Packers scheme to take away Mack’s effectiveness (Hello, formation shifts; hello, quick passes; hello, Marcedes Lewis). But when he does win his match-up and when Mack has baited your quarterback into coming his way, and Mack’s teammates sell their roles effectively, and the Packers make alignment errors … you get a sack.

That’s what happened. Give credit to Mack for his athleticism, smarts, execution of his team’s scheme and awareness of his opponent’s tendencies for this one. It was a team sack. The Packers should be wiser this time around. Of course, Mack has other tricks up his sleeve, as does Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

Can’t wait to see what happens next.

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