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The Thinker

Oakland’s Khalil Mack is stronger than most and faster than the rest. But he’s become both a face of the Raiders’ resurgence and one of the league’s most feared pass rushers thanks to another muscle: his brain.

Oakland’s Khalil Mack can get into the backfield with ease. "That shit is self-explanatory," fellow Raiders pass rusher Bruce Irvin says. Mack, the third-year outside linebacker and defensive end, is more powerful than most and faster than the rest. Those aren’t the skills that Mack wants to rely upon on every play, however. Picasso could have painted sunsets and beaches, but that wouldn’t have been the best use of his specific talents.

The other part of Mack is not self-explanatory, but it’s what makes him one of the most feared players in football: He’s a defensive genius, as cerebral as he is fast and strong. His vision before and after the snap is as unrivaled as his ludicrously high vertical jump. He can overpower and outsmart the opponent, and on any given play, he can choose to do both.

The 25-year-old defender has left a trail of embarrassed offensive linemen, quarterbacks, and offensive coordinators in his wake as he’s helped to spark the first-place Raiders’ renaissance. He ranks in the top five in the NFL in sacks (11), forced fumbles (five), and fumble recoveries (three). This month, he tied the franchise record by delivering a sack in his eighth straight game. Last season, he became the first player in NFL history to earn All-Pro honors at two positions (defensive end and outside linebacker). The no. 5 overall pick in the 2014 draft became a star the moment he entered the league, but this season he’s forced more turnovers than ever, been a more consistent force from game to game (one-third of his sacks last season came in one contest), and been so disruptive that his eventual standing as a Raiders defensive stalwart seems all but assured. And this year’s Raiders have risen along with him and fellow breakout star Derek Carr, last week clinching their first playoff spot since 2002. Mack is a gifted pass rusher, but labeling him a sack artist would be like describing Chance the Rapper as the guy in the hat. They’re both so much more.

"He knows the angles, he knows which arm to reach out with based on where the quarterback likes to hold the ball, he knows exactly at what depth the quarterback will be," says Raiders defensive line coach Jethro Franklin. "He knows how many steps their drops are, their setup points. He has a great combination of strength, speed, and power. But the biggest thing is his knowledge."

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Pass rushing can be simple — see the quarterback, try to hit him — but Mack employs an atypical philosophy that would make decades of hit-first-ask-questions-later rushers cringe: "I’m not looking for the big hit," Mack says. That’s because he’s not just seeking to disrupt a play; he’s aiming to destroy an opponent’s entire game plan using his blend of instincts, intellect, and raw athleticism.

While Mack’s intentions are a constant, the specifics can vary from play to play. Earlier this month, for example, Mack needed to seal a game against the Buffalo Bills, who faced a first-and-10 from the Raiders’ 17-yard line with 3:30 left in the fourth quarter and were threatening to making it a one-score game. Mack processes dozens of data points on each play (here’s one: Tyrod Taylor typically sets to throw from about 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, which Mack says is closer than almost any quarterback), but in that moment, one factor emerged supreme: After marching 58 yards down field on the drive, the Bills were tired. Their blocking scheme featured a running back patrolling the edge and not even pretending to run a route, so Mack knew he’d need to find a way to power through the inside of the line. But after nearly four full quarters of action, he was exhausted, too, so he started jogging casually after the snap. Only:

"It was a setup," Mack says. He wasn’t tired at all, but his ruse had lulled the right tackle, Jordan Mills, into relaxing. "So I hit him with the bull rush."

Robert Wimberly, Mack’s former University at Buffalo linebackers coach and current Liberty defensive coordinator, says that nearly every NFL scout he engages with asks the same question: How did bigger schools miss on Mack, whom Wimberly recruited as a two-star prospect out of Fort Pierce, Florida? Wimberly remains dumbfounded that teams failed to identify Mack’s athletic prowess, but concedes that such oversights do occur, especially in a state like Florida that’s so densely populated with elite high school football players. What’s more, he’s come to realize that what makes Mack great is hard to scout. He has natural vision and athleticism, yes, but the real key is that he chooses to pair those abilities with a fierce desire to watch film on every inch of the opposition until he identifies the most direct route for getting the ball back to his offense. Those differentiators first emerged during his college years at Buffalo.

Lou Tepper, Mack’s college defensive coordinator, says that Mack possesses one physical gift that he cannot remember seeing in his years of coaching star pass rushers, including Hall of Famer Bruce Smith.

"None of them had the ability to see the ball while rushing the passer," Tepper says. "What Khalil does is uncanny. Pass rushers focus so much on the protection, the [offensive] tackle, the chip blocks, and you take it all as you go, and no one can do all that and focus on the football at the same time. He can. He was given a gift, and I’ve never seen anything quite like that."

When Mack paired that natural vision with NFL-style film study, something special happened: The fast, strong guy who had already proved capable of seeing everything as it was happening learned to see things before they happened, too.

"The most important thing after you make sure you know where the ball is," Mack says, "is to know where it’s going." The result? The plays that have rocked the NFL this year, cementing Mack’s status as one of the game’s premier defensive forces and as a Raiders legend in the making. The team that has produced Ted Hendricks, Howie Long, Jack Tatum, and Charles Woodson has another potential all-time great in its ranks.

One of those season-defining plays came in a key November AFC West battle against the defending Super Bowl champions, when Mack pulled off a strip sack of Denver’s Trevor Siemian. Mack could have simply tried to clobber Siemian once he began to close in on the QB, but there was a catch: "He could see me, and I could see that he saw that I could see him," Mack says. Thanks to his obsessive analysis of where quarterbacks will be, Mack knew how to adjust. He knew that Siemian preferred to set up about 7 yards back in the pocket, deeper than most quarterbacks, meaning it would take Mack slightly longer than usual to reach the passer. Mack also knew that Siemian would step forward hard in the pocket to try to avoid the rush. And finally, Mack knew that he could get a hand out, use Siemian’s natural forward movement against him, and pop the ball out. So that’s exactly what he did.

Mack’s mental calculations also proved key a few weeks later against the team Denver beat in last season’s Super Bowl. Mack knew that Carolina’s Trai Turner, the tackle in front of him, had moved over from guard for the game and was playing "soft," leaving him susceptible to being pushed back quite easily. Mack suspected that the Panthers were going to rely on runs and quick passes to boost Turner’s confidence. So just before the half, on a second down from the Carolina 13, Mack could have cut inside and chased Newton after the ball was snapped, but he weighed every factor and bided his time. Again, just landing the hit wasn’t the point. He saw Newton cradle the ball low, indicating that the QB wasn’t going to throw in the direction the play suggested: away from Mack. He deduced, both from his film study and innate feel, that Newton was going to turn and quickly throw the ball to the other side. Mack pushed Turner back easily, but did not try one of his pass-rush moves. Instead, he hovered near the line of scrimmage off to Newton’s right. Mack put himself in the right spot: He picked off the pass and scored a touchdown.

Mack isn’t just a challenge for offensive linemen and quarterbacks. He’s a total conundrum: He’s so smart about disrupting plays that he could get by on brains and hard work alone. But there is, of course, also the matter of his extreme athleticism.

One day this August, Donald Penn, the Raiders’ 6-foot-5 Pro Bowl offensive tackle, finally thought he had figured Mack out. In training camp, Mack started to hit Penn with a devastating move to blow past him, bursting off the line then bending low around the lineman and toward the quarterback. For days, Penn could not stop it, but he kept working. "I was close to countering it and I was getting closer and closer," Penn says. "And one day, I knew it was coming and I was able to hit him with the counter."

There was just one problem: "It didn’t work," Penn says. "He was able to keep his balance. Thank God it was a practice so [Carr] didn’t get hurt."

Raiders coaches played the film that night during an offensive line meeting. Penn says that offensive line coach Mike Tice analyzed the sequence of events and announced that there was nothing to coach there, no lessons to take from that failure. "My coaching point," Penn remembers Tice saying, "is good luck."

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In spring 2014, the owner of the Fort Pierce, Florida, car wash that Sandy Mack frequents started talking to him about the upcoming NFL draft. Sandy, Khalil’s father, always pushed his son to be perfect, saying "I’m not going to go to a game to see you sit on the bench." He always warned him about the people working to take Khalil’s spot: "There’s someone out there practicing so if you are sleeping or relaxing, someone is coming to take your place, don’t let that happen."

So when the car wash proprietor mentioned that he thought South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney was a little better than Mack, "I had to step up on the guy," Sandy says. "I said, ‘That’s not right, that’s not right, you’ll find out when the games start. Clowney is good but you don’t know what you’re talking about with my son. He’s always been the underdog. He’s always been the guy everyone overlooks. You’ll find out.’"

History has proven Sandy correct. Clowney, the no. 1 selection in the draft, has been a fine player for the Texans, but due in part to durability concerns has fewer sacks in his three-year career than Mack has since this October 16. "I see the guy all the time and I never say anything," Sandy says. "I’ll let my son’s play do the talking."

The Macks have heard these doubts for years, giving Khalil what Sandy calls a "quiet anger" and saying there’s "no doubt it’s fueled him." Mack was an unheralded prospect at Fort Pierce Westwood High School whose only FBS college offer came from Buffalo, and Sandy says there’s "no doubt" that the recruitment process played a massive role in his son’s competitive streak. There were hints of that spirit even before big colleges and NFL teams gave him more ammo, though: Sandy taught Khalil how to do military-style push-ups ("no slouching") when Khalil was in elementary school, and would challenge his son to see how many he could do, often in front of Sandy’s friends, who Sandy says didn’t believe how strong of a boy he had. "I’d say, ‘I bet you can’t do 30 push-ups,’ and he’d do it. So I started saying ‘I bet you can’t do 35, 40’ and he’d keep doing it and then would do more. It got to be where it was nothing."

The lore of Mack’s self-improvement techniques never made it to major college circles, because Mack’s name never did. He didn’t play football as a freshman because he was focusing on basketball instead, and he lost his sophomore season to a torn patellar tendon that also kept him out junior year. Westwood coach Waides Ashmon convinced Mack that a college scholarship awaited if he pursued football once he returned to health; even before he hit the field as a senior, though, Ashmon told Wimberly, who was in his first stint with Liberty at the time, that Mack had the potential to be a college player. Wimberly marveled at the tape from Mack’s senior season, his only campaign of competitive high school football, and offered him a spot at Liberty, which Mack accepted. When Wimberly took a job at Buffalo after Mack’s senior season, Mack made the move up north, too.

Why no one else joined Wimberly in recruiting Mack still baffles the coach in some regards. The tape showed Mack’s explosion; the ability to bend so low when running around the blocker that his shoulders nearly hit the ground; the capacity for both covering the pass plays and rushing the passer. Wimberly thought that Mack was about to enjoy the gilded rise toward recruiting stardom, but it never happened. Wimberly notes that the recruiting system has become so competitive that it works against late bloomers, which Mack’s initial basketball focus and later injury ensured he’d be. "The way recruiting is now, most teams have their offers out by sophomore year," Wimberly says. "You can’t blame the bigger schools, but a lot of times those guys are done with most of their class a year in advance."

When Mack arrived on the Buffalo campus, a buzz started building almost immediately among coaches. In his first scrimmage, Mack changed direction so quickly and with such athleticism that many coaches thought about playing him as a true freshman, but Wimberly says that head coach Turner Gill thought it would be a "disservice" to put Mack on the field so early because it could possibly hinder his long-term development. Mack put his redshirt season to good use, though, "doing a lot lot things you don’t see in redshirts," Wimberly says. Typically, players spend their redshirt season trying to understand the general concepts of their side of the ball, which can take "a year or two," Wimberly says. Mack handled that within a few months and moved on to studying the habits of tackles he wasn’t yet facing and the tendencies of opponents he wasn’t yet playing.

When he got on the field he showed flashes of athleticism, recording 5.5 sacks as a redshirt sophomore and earning first-team All-MAC honors that year. But he still needed to perfect some fundamentals — no surprise for a player with such a short track record of playing organized football. Tepper, the defensive coordinator, says he had to teach Mack the small but crucial building blocks for success: Mack initially attacked blockers off the wrong foot and failed to exhibit maximum effort when pursuing the ball carrier, for example. His on-field practice habits, Tepper says, were "average." But once he nailed the fundamentals, he took a leap. As a redshirt junior, he recorded eight sacks and four forced fumbles. In the first game of his senior season, he recorded 2.5 sacks and scored a pick-six against Ohio State. That was the game, Tepper says, that launched Mack "from a third-round pick to a top-10 pick." He capped his college career by winning MAC Defensive Player of the Year. (Once it became clear that Mack would attend a MAC school, Sandy began joking that it would be the M-A-C-K conference before his son left.)

Mastering the fundamentals was a large part of Mack’s jump toward superstardom, but so too was his competitive streak. In 2013, Tepper needed to make sure Mack could dominate a big UMass offensive tackle named Anthony Dima, who was one of the few MAC tackles that coaches thought might be able to contain Mack. Dima popped on film for not only blocking opponents, but mauling them. "Knocking them out left and right," Tepper says. So Tepper started to refer to Dima as "Drago," a reference to the Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. It resonated with Mack: "I know Rocky like the back of my hand," he says.

Tepper found Dima’s "knockout" clips and played them alongside Drago footage to get Mack as fired up as possible. Then, when Mack was most amped about taking down UMass’s Drago, Tepper asked Mack if he wanted to flip the defense around to go against the other tackle instead. "And he looked and me and he started yelling: ‘Coach, we can’t do that!’" Tepper says. "So at that point I keep going, I’m really egging him on and I say, ‘Just think about it — you can go against this other guy and get three sacks!’ and he just had so much pride."

When Mack took the field, Tepper heard Mack scream "I’m coming for you!" at Dima. He wrecked Dima all afternoon and recorded a pick-six in the second quarter.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

This time of year, Mack loves watching his favorite childhood movie, Mary Poppins. "‘Spoonful of Sugar’ — that joint will forever stick with me," Mack says. "And then you’ve got ‘Feed the Birds’ — ‘Feed the Birds,’ now that’s cool, too." Mack is musically inclined: He’s told the Raiders’ website that he’s a Tim McGraw fan, and Sandy says that Khalil taught himself guitar in college, apparently just because he wanted to. He’s also soft-spoken and laid-back. When asked how he responds to trash talk, he says he doesn’t care, that he just wants to hit guys in the mouth. He quickly corrects himself. "On the field, the right way," he says. He’s sincere.

Pulling the fire out of him requires digging deeper, which is why so many people around him — coaches, parents, teammates — like to appeal to his competitive side. Mack’s competitiveness has led him to become a perfectionist, which has led him to become an NFL superstar and a Raiders icon. One recent example: After Mack recorded a pick-six against Carolina, his former defensive coordinator texted him to congratulate him. Mack replied, Tepper says, by requesting a list of things he could do better.

Tepper isn’t the only one from whom Mack seeks council, because the thirst for constant improvement that Sandy instilled in his son at a young age has never diminished. Raiders great Woodson was still active during Mack’s first two seasons, and Mack says that he’d seek advice from the franchise hero, who taught him how to tackle with the intent of stripping the ball by putting pressure on the ball carrier’s shoulder. (Mack demonstrated the shoulder technique on this reporter, who can confirm its effectiveness.) Remember: For Mack, it’s not about the big hit, but the right hit. "I’m looking for leverage in my hits," Mack says when describing his tackling philosophy today. Oakland defensive tackle Dan Williams says that Irvin, the former Seahawk who joined the Raiders over the summer, has given additional lessons to Mack and the team’s other pass rushers on how to hit the elbow during the tackle, a tactic Irvin says Mack is employing well. Mack’s five forced fumbles this season are two more than he managed in his first two seasons combined.

Franklin, the Raiders’ defensive line coach, says that Mack is the perfect pass rusher for this era. For one, offenses are enjoying unprecedented levels of success, with the average quarterback throwing for 242 yards per game, up 18 percent from a decade ago. The best way to slow the competition in a league full of unstoppable offenses is to take the ball away from them. What’s more, Mack’s knack for pursuing the perfect angle tends to help him avoid the curse that afflicts many modern pass rushers: the dreaded helmet-to-helmet hits, however accidental, that often net 15-yard penalties. "You can’t punish the quarterback like you used to," Franklin says. "You can go for the big hit now and it’ll probably be helmet-to-helmet anyway and you won’t even end up with a sack. Khalil is not looking for a kill shot."

Penn raves about Mack’s ability to disguise looks in games, showing speed move after speed move just for the payoff: Right when the lineman goes back on his heels, Mack will switch to a power move. "That’s the moment he comes right up and hits you," Penn says. Mack’s creativity and versatility still shock his teammates. "Most pass rushers you say, ‘OK, he’s going to do a bull rush or he’s going to do a spin,’" says Williams. "Khalil? You have no idea. None. He can dip [his shoulder] on you, he can use power, he can spin if he wants."

"You cannot label him."

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