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Khalil Mack's quiet day vs Saints more than meets the eye

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A closer look at some of the factors of Khalil Mack's day and how the Saints went out of their way to try to make sure he didn't wreck them.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Super Stardom, Khalil Mack. From here on in, every opposing offense is going to begin their game plan with "What do we do with #52?" New Orleans had a very good plan and the perfect QB and offense to execute it.

Their approach was fairly straightforward :

  • Give help to either Terron Armstead of Zach Strief with G or Chipping TE/RB.
  • When NOT chipping line up a TE outside the Tackle to create a little traffic in front of Mack
  • Quick passing game
  • Run the ball away from Mack

Here are a few stats that may be enlightening:

45 passing plays. average snap-to-pass time : 2.5s

A stunning 12 of Brees' throws were under 2.0 sec.

The Saints were doing everything they could to try to mitigate the Mack Factor.

Mack lined up 43 pass plays

  • 25 single blocks
  • 8 had TE lined up

25 times Khalil Mack had 1-on-1 situations with either Terron Armstead or Zach Strief, but on 8 of those, the Saints lined up a Tight end just outside the Tackle to put some doubt in Khalil's mind as to whether he'd be getting a chip or double team. At the very least, the TE's release crossed Mack's face and gave the tackle just a half-beat extra to get to his spot to pass block.

On those 25 1-on-1 matchups, Brees got the ball out in an average of only 2.3 seconds.

Naturally, if the ball comes out so quick, it's frustrating for the pass rusher because he can't get there in time. It's a natural advantage.

This helps the tackle's blocking. The tackle knows that the ball is coming out in under 2.5 seconds. He knows that he doesn't have to stonewall the pass rusher; all he has to do is slow him up for 2.5 seconds! That means (a) don't give up the inside and (b) get some kind of body presence on him.

This takes much of the pressure off the tackle. He gets to play "inside out" and stays within himself and keeps from extending too much. Zach Strief, in particular, is a big strong guy who can anchor and reacts to Mack's power very well.

But if he were asked to pass protect for 3.5 seconds often, that is when Mack would begin to wear on him.

If the coverage holds up like it did early on, then naturally it extends the play and gives the rushers more time (Bruce Irvin's sack was a direct result of the coverage forcing Brees to hold onto the ball for 4 seconds). The problem with the Saints' quick passing offense is that despite throwing in under 3 seconds, they are still multi-dimensional; they can go downfield on a 2.5 second snap-to-pass.

If the pass rush wants to get to Brees quickly, it means that Ken Norton Jr has to scheme the pressure. He also has to scheme free rush lanes and that is much easier said than done. Especially since blitzing against Drew Brees is more likely to give up a big play than to get the sack; Brees is just preternaturally aware.

Highlights

Here are some highlights and interesting clips of Khalil's game.

Chipped by the TE

About 40% of the time Khalil had a chip or double team. This is what he had to deal with. This may be one reason why the Saints were using multiple TE sets this game.

Run Away from Khalil

The word has long since gotten out that Khalil Mack is not just a good run defender; he is a devastating, rampaging monster of a run defender. Do not run at him. Do not run near him. He will destroy you.

On this play, he treats #68 Tim Lelito, a 6'4", 315 lbs offensive guard lined up at the Tackle Eligible position, like a rag doll.

Note that the Saints intend to run away from Mack, but Bruce Irvin et al force the cutback.

Dip

Anyone that has read or paid any attention to me this year knows that I've been anticipating Khalil Mack's next evolutionary step and that I've been going crazy waiting to see Mack's Dip move revealed.

He showed it in this game and the wait was worth it.

Zoom

Details

This is just too beautiful, so here's are some additional details.

1. Give an arm

Mack approaches RT #64 Zach Strief. Strief is squared up and Mack swipes his right arm in front of Strief. This gives an appearance of Mack squaring up and giving Strief a greater attack surface.

2. Take it away

Then Mack pulls that arm down and dips upfield and away from Strief. The Saints' RT thinks he's going to give Mack a pop and instead he's grasping at air.

3. Strief gets a chuck to the back

Strief does a good job to recover and do what he can; in this case, he gets just a little bit of a one-hand chuck into Mack's upper back. Not enough to stop him, but it's just a little bit of physical presence that makes Mack work. It may slow him down just a hair.

4. Missed it by that much

And Mack is just a hair from getting the sack and maybe forcing a fumble. Brees gets the ball out in 2.8s. Make it 2.9 and Mack makes the play.

It's a beautiful move and what's really exciting is that it looks like he can make it even better. As he gets more experienced in it and more confident with his move, he's going to be more sudden and totally disappear from blockers; they won't even get a hand on him!

The Wipe

On the very next play, Mack came exploding around the corner again and you'd be excused for thinking he just used the same Dip move twice in a row.

But this is even better; Mack used a different move that we've not seen yet, but that could signal a whole new weapon in the arsenal.

On this play, keep an eye on Mack's hands, most visibly, the right hand.

Zoom

One of my very favorite enemy players is Tamba Hali. Ok, I said it.

His pass rush skills are amazing, but what I have always admired about him is his ability to hand-fight with the blockers. Hand Fighting is how a player uses his hands to attack the opposing player's hands. It is typically difficult for young players to learn and generally takes a few years to come around.

In his 3rd year, we are seeing Khalil Mack develop some hand-fighting moves. With Mack's power, speed, strength, explosiveness, and agility, if he's adding this kind of hand fighting to his repertoire, it's going to get miserable for offensive linemen.

Details

1. Approach

Approach Zach Strief and make it look like the same Dip move.. Strief turns to square up.

2. Catch the Arm

Ideally, Mack wants to jam his hand right into the bottom of the biceps, right near the elbow joint. If he catches Strief right there, Mack has leverage and Strief can't raise his arm at all.

In a similar-type move, other pass rushers have managed to grab the blocker's wrists, which also enables a level of control.

If he happens to strike hard enough into the elbow, the arm will give a little bit and the elbow will bend. Notice the protective sleeve that helps Strief from getting Charlie Horse from a hard strike into the biceps muscle itself.

The key here is that Mack has the leverage and that Strief cannot engage Mack with his left arm.

The best way to not get held is to not allow the blocker to get his hands on him!

3. Swipe

Mack explodes upfield and swipes Strief's arms back. Strief's can't raise his left arm and his left hand still can't grab Mack.

Perfect!

4. Turn the Corner

Mack's battling Strief's other arm now. It doesn't matter much though; Mack's hips have cleared Strief's position and Mack now has a clear lane to Brees.

5. Clear

Mack swipes again, this time clearing Strief's back (right) arm.

6. Malachi Crunch

Mack gets free and makes a leap to hit Brees.

The ball gets out in 2.7s, just before getting crunched.

Also, Hello, Bruce Irvin. (He came free on a brilliant T/E Stunt with Denico Autry.)

Finale

Khalil Mack did not have a big statistical day and this type of approach will be more common now. Few teams will be content to sit back and let Mack go one-on-one with their tackle all day (maybe Denver has learned from the last game?).

But Mack's presence was felt in the game. Each play, there was attention and sometimes double-attention paid to Mack. It set the stage for other defenders to make some plays; Denico had some opportunities because the protection went to Mack. Malcolm's blitz came free in part because the right side of the offensive line focused on Mack even as Mack dropped into coverage. There were times when the Center turned to check Mack.

The effectiveness of Brees and his WR corps as well as the struggles of the Raiders' coverage unit was tilting the field against Mack. If the coverage forces Brees to hold the ball just a few beats longer on a couple of key plays, Mack may have had a sack or two; then suddenly the perception of his day flips entirely.

What is also worth mentioning is that Mack was showing to be a bit of a tactician.

Great pass rushers know that there are a lot of plays in the game and that there is a time and place to bring out the very best move. Often during the course of the game, pass rushers will be setting blockers up so that when the time comes, he can use his Fatality.

In the 4th Quarter with 11:43 remaining, the Raiders just closed the margin to 24-19 after the Jamize Olawale TD. The Raiders are desperate to get the ball back. This is when Mack used the Dip for the first time and then he followed up right away with the Hand Swipe. Against most other QBs, he would have had back-to-back sacks at this critical juncture.

So keep an eye out for this in the future. Mack isn't just getting better; he's getting smarter.

Beware, AFC West. Beware!