It may have been the biggest blooper of the NFL season, an indelible play that illustrated how bad things were for the Oakland Raiders, but how much better they’ve become now.
With 49 seconds to play in the Raiders’ 24-20 win over the Chiefs last month, rookie linebacker Khalil Mack and Sio Moore began celebrating and high-fiving after Moore’s third-down sack of Alex Smith. Then, they found themselves 15 yards offsides as the Chiefs lined up for the next play.
Oakland defensive end Justin Tuck saw his teammates on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage and called timeout before the Chiefs could get a free 11-on-nine play. But it didn’t save Moore and Mack some embarrassment, even after the Raiders, then 0-10, won their first game of the season.
“I couldn’t believe they were lined up already,” Mack said as the Raiders prepared for the rematch with the Chiefs on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. “It was a panic. But that was three weeks ago. It’s in the past. It’s something that we learn from, and something we don’t look for to do in every game.”
Mack, the fifth overall pick of the 2014 draft out of Buffalo, has come a long way since that moment of chagrin.
Mack had five quarterback pressures and two hits against the Chiefs and pressured Smith on the final incompletion of the game. And last week, Mack sacked San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick twice in the Raiders’ 24-13 victory over San Francisco, their second win in three weeks.
“He’s disruptive,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “Any time when you’re in a timing offense, like we are, that you can disrupt that quarterback’s timing and rhythm, it affects your passing game.”
Mack has been as destructive in the running game as he has in defending the pass.
Mack, 6 feet 3 and 252 pounds, has a 32.5 rating by Pro Football Focus among 3-4 outside linebackers, second only to the Chiefs’ Justin Houston’s 39.2. According to unofficial pressbox statistics, Mack has totaled 62 tackles, and 43 of those — 69.4 percent — have been for a loss or within 3 yards of the line of scrimmage.
He is also first among defensive players with 10 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage, according to STATS, Inc., just ahead of Houston’s defensive player of the year candidate J.J. Watt, who has 9 1/2.
“That’s a mind-set, a mind-set that I’ve had even in college, just if you can to get to the ball in the backfield and make it hard for the offense on third down,” Mack said. “So that’s the part of my game that I’ve always thought about … getting off blocks and making plays in the backfield.”
In college, Mack set a school record with 28 1/2 career sacks and was the NCAA’s all-time leader with 16 career forced fumbles. His 75 tackles for loss is a modern-NCAA record (since 2000). Some observers, including ESPN’s Merrill Hoge, considered Mack the top prospect in the draft, ahead of first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, who barely got on the field this season because of injuries.
“I think he is going to be one of the most complete, dominant linebackers we’ve ever seen,” Hoge said of Mack. “He is just a phenomenal football player. I’ve never seen a linebacker make this type of easy transition to the NFL.
“I watched his Buffalo tape and said ‘Holy … I never seen anything like it.’ He is going to be a wrecking crew.”
That’s high praise for a player who concentrated on basketball and didn’t play football until his junior year at Fort Pierce (Fla.) Westwood High School, and had just one Division I scholarship offer, from Buffalo.
In fact, the primary reason Buffalo even noticed Mack was the school was recruiting teammate Luther Robinson, who ended up going to Miami and is now with the Green Bay Packers.
“He was an ath-a-lete,” emphasized Chiefs rookie wide receiver Albert Wilson, who played at rival high school Port St. Lucie and has mutual friends of Mack’s. “He could do it all. The area we came from was not highly recruited, so he went to Buffalo and made the best of it.”
Mack finally broke through with his first NFL sack on Nov. 16 against San Diego.
“I remember coming around the edge, getting pushed too far up the field,” Mack said, “and I turned back and I saw Philip Rivers and was hoping and wishing that he held the ball just a little longer. I got there, and he just so happened to hold it and I got it.”
Mack has been nearly unblockable ever since.
“He’s been really active,” Raiders interim coach Tony Sparano said. “He’s been around the football quite a bit in the last five to six games, and really the St. Louis game was a game where it was kind of hard. They dumped us kind of a little bit outside to get the ball out really fast, so you didn’t see Khalil maybe as much in that football game…
“But we’re starting to see him progress right now … he’s starting to affect the passer more and getting around the quarterback and making a couple of sacks. He had a couple of sacks last weekend and another that was called back. That’s what you want to see out of a young pass rusher.”