Expectations for Raiders pass rusher Khalil Mack are sky high this season. Rightfully so. The second-year pro from the University of Buffalo is a rare species, a combination of tremendous power, speed and agility.
That’s no secret. Most expect a breakout year from Mack, easily the Raiders most talented player.
It was clear in the regular season opener that teams don’t want Mack to beat them. The Cincinnati Bengals brought double teams early, and late with pre-snap formation shifts. They got rid of the ball quick and kept No. 52 quiet in the early going.
“They did a lot of things schematically to throw me off,” Mack said. “I didn’t really feel too involved at first but, at the same time, it’s a team game. As a defense, we have to step up when that happens and hold them.”
The pass defense wasn’t able to do so. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton found receivers open early, which largely negated a pass rush.
“We knew who we were facing and how they like to play ball,” Mack said. “They did certain things to slow us down. We did what we could to (create some pressure), but he was getting out quick. It was tough to get there.”
The Raiders defensive front didn’t get home often. They had no sacks, two quarterbacks and four hurries. Mack had two pressures in 31 pass-rushing snaps. That wasn’t an ideal start to a big year. It’s hard to blame Mack and the front seven, who didn’t have much time to operate. That fact wasn’t lost on the coaching staff.
“They didn’t really have to hold the ball very long,” head coach Jack Del Rio said. “We didn’t make them reload very often. Good pass defense is a combination of rush and coverage. It just wasn’t what we’re looking to have.”
The Raiders need to help the four-man rush get to the quarterback. Just a few seconds will do, time that must be given by cover men.
Mack says the Ravens do different things schematically, but this league produces copycats. What works for one against one team might be used again and again.
The Ravens, for one, respect a Raiders pass rush featuring Mack, Justin Tuck and new signee Aldon Smith.
“We feel like their pass rush is one of the best in the league,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We saw one of the best in the league last week and we struggled, and we’re going to see one of the best in the league again this week and we have to do better.”
Teams must respect Justin Tuck, who has made a living sacking the quarterback with four double-digit sack seasons. Smith is a former All-Pro with 44 sacks in 51 games. He played 29 snaps against Cincinnati, and should increase his workload as he grows comfortable with the defense.
“You can see he has obvious talent,” Del Rio said. “Clearly when the quarterback is not going to be able to throw the ball as early as he was able to this week, I think a guy like Aldon will show up.”
Production from Smith, Tuck and others in a four-man rush should help create favorable matchups for Mack, who remains someone you scheme against.
“You probably do have to start with him,” Harbaugh said. “I think they have a lot of very good players on defense, but he’s probably the focal point. He’s a potential game-wrecker. That guy can potentially wreck the whole game. You have to pay close attention to him.”