Whenever Khalil Mack misses a practice, Raiders fans hold their collective breath. There are players who if they go down, ‘next man up' and then there's Mack. Well, fans can breathe easy, because despite missing practice on Wednesday with a knee injury, he spoke to the media today and said he is good to go for Sunday's game against the Broncos.
Prior to the season, the coaching staff made it clear they wanted to see Mack put up more sacks than his 2014 total of 4.0. Mack matched that total by midseason and surpassed it two weeks later. He has also matched his entire 2014 sack total over the past two weeks. Now with 9.0 sacks on the season, he sits one sack away from double digits with still four games remaining.
His 9.0 sacks already matches the franchise best since 2010 when Kamerion Wiimbley did it. One more sack and he will be the first Raiders player with double digit sacks since 2006 when Derrick Burgess led the team with 11.0 sacks.
This kind of performance this season was expected by most who watched him last season. What we all saw was a player who was so close to putting up sacks all season before finally breaking through and putting up all four of his sacks in the final seven games. As his defensive coordinator, Ken Norton Jr explains it, it's "just growth."
"I mean anytime you're in the league, the second year there's always going to be better than the first," said Norton. "Hopefully the third is always going to be better than the second. You put him in situation to rush the quarterback, to impact the quarterback more. We felt like he was an impact player and he does certain things really well so we just have to do that more often. And he's been fantastic. He's brought around what the line has been doing and he's been really impactful. He's a fantastic player and he's only getting better. What you see now is just a scratch of the surface of what he's capable of."
In college, Mack was a man among boys. He dominated his opponents on sheer strength and athleticism. Often times, that physical domination doesn't translate to the pros where all players are the best of the best. Not so for Mack.
What makes Mack special is his ability to not simply trying to dominate players, but to outsmart them. He has been working on his technique and creating new moves since he arrived in Oakland. Now he has enough different moves, he can keep his opponent guessing in game planning and throughout a game.
"He's young, he's still getting better, he's still learning what he does best," Norton continued. "Every great pass rusher has a go-to move and he's still developing that go-to move. Right now he's doing everything and it's working and it's important that he really continues to grow and see what he has."
Even before seeing him on the field of play, his personality and character are striking. A combination of soft spoken, confidence, and maturity you rarely find in a young player.
"Some guys get into the spotlight and it might hurt them because of the attention," Norton said. "He does a great job of understanding why he's here and what is job is. He's able to separate once you get on the field, it's all business. He's about football and those are the type of guys that in the long run they play and have really good careers."
The next step in his career will happen in Denver Sunday when the Raiders take on the Broncos - a team he has faced three times without getting a sack in any of those contests.