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Khalil Mack's breakout: Secret to his sophomore success

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The following item is excerpted from the Week 16 edition of Albert Breer's exclusive Inside the NFL Notebook:

Khalil Mack's five-sack effort two weeks ago against the Broncos was a triumph for a lot of folks wearing silver and black -- from Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie to head coach Jack Del Rio right on down the line.

And it certainly was for defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. This was, to be sure, a shining example of the benefits of the team's plan to have Mack rush more in Year 2 than he did for Dennis Allen's staff as a rookie. But what stuck out to Norton most wasn't that it happened, but how it went down.

"The most impressive thing to me was his consistency," Norton said from his office. "It didn't happen at the beginning of the game. The sacks came at the end of the game. When everyone's supposed to be tired, he just kept coming. He learned the opponent and got better within the game, and got sacks from both sides. And the guys around him provided opportunities he took advantage of."

Indeed, all five of Mack's sacks came in the second half, and three of them went down in the fourth quarter, and that was, in Norton's mind at least, an indication of who Mack is. And it's because of who Mack is that the outburst against the Broncos wasn't exactly a revelation for Norton. Truth is, not much of anything in this 15-sack campaign has been.

"I'm not surprised at all by it," Norton continued. "We watch his work ethic every day. He's here early, he stays late, he asks questions, he watches film. And when you talk to him, his mindset is very clear and very focused. He's not caught up in all the distractions. He eats ball, he drinks ball, he sleeps ball, he lives ball. All he wants to do is improve and make everyone around him better."

That's what the tweak to Mack's role in Oakland back in the spring was intended to do.

Del Rio and Norton saw a player who was handling a number of responsibilities as a rookie, and playing half his snaps up as a linebacker and half of them down as a lineman. As part of that, he was splitting his time between two different meeting rooms and, when you boil it down, stretching himself a little thin.

The idea this year has been to simplify. The Raiders planned to play him down 90 percent of the time and rush him on almost all passing downs.

"One, we wanted to give him more opportunities," Norton said. "Two, he's able to work on it in practice every day. Practice is the only place players have to get better. And now he can sit there and watch the film, watch other players, go over and over it, without dividing his attention. We wanted him to concentrate and understand exactly who he is. Sometimes, you give guys too much and their identity becomes unclear. We made it real clear: Your job is to be aggressive and go get the quarterback."

He's certainly proven to be capable of that.

Along the way, Mack has transformed himself from an athletically-gifted-but-raw player lacking true pass-rush moves -- and understanding of how to read tackles -- into more of a tactician. Mack certainly still has a ways to go, but he understands that.

"He's absolutely just scratching the surface," Norton said. "He has so much room to grow. I don't know where he's going, but if he keeps this pace, if he stays this guy, keeps the growth going, there's no telling how far he can go. The great ones have a mentality, certain goals, a certain motivation, they can't be sidetracked. And he has that."

That, Norton continued, is what makes the Raiders think they could have an all-time great on their hands, with the key being staying the course: "That five-sack performance, Charles Woodson's done it for 18 years and [he's among the league leaders] in interceptions. You see Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas, those guy, it's longevity that sets them apart -- you know what you're getting every time. The LTs of the world, you know exactly what you're getting. He has to create this reputation. And then he has to sustain it."

If 2015 is just the start of that, we all have a lot to look forward to.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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