Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
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NEXT GEN STATS: The secret to Khalil Mack's success
Having watched Khalil Mack re-emerge as a dominant force for the Oakland Raiders over the past six games, I'm convinced that "scheme fit" is the most important part of player evaluation. While every NFL coach is capable of assessing a player's talent, the best coaches are able to put a guy in a position where he can maximize the strengths of his game.
As the only player in NFL history to earn All-Pro honors at two positions in the same year, Mack is unquestionably one of the best pass rushers in the game. He has amassed 28 sacks in 43 career games (including nine so far in 2016), exhibiting a combination of athleticism, physicality and violence that makes veteran quarterbacks squeamish in the pocket. Mack's vicious assault tactics have made him one of the game's most feared edge players. From his devastating bull rush to his explosive "butt-and-jerk" and two-handed swipe maneuvers, Mack attacks offensive tackles like a bull in a china shop. He simply overwhelms edge blockers with his rugged game.
Despite his tremendous success as a pass rusher, the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder isn't quite a "plug and play" rusher capable of getting home from anywhere on the field. Now, that's not a dismissal of his immense talents as a player, but his power-based style isn't necessarily conducive to thriving as a blind-side rusher. Before you come at me sideways with a barrage of tweets calling me unflattering names or suggesting that I don't know what I'm talking about, I want to clarify what I mean when I suggest his game isn't built for the blind side.
For years, teams would place their top pass rusher at RDE/ROLB to allow him to attack from the open side. Most offenses feature right-handed quarterbacks and thus operate with a "strong right" premise. (With most quarterbacks preferring to throw to the right side of the field, the teams routinely align the tight end or passing strength to that side.) Consequently, defensive coordinators elected to position their most explosive and productive pass rusher on the back side of the formation to provide him with plenty of one-on-one opportunities against a left tackle. This prompted most defensive coordinators to place their quickest and most explosive pass rushers on the back side, which is why "speed" rushers (pass rushers with electric first-step quickness) are routinely positioned on the defensive right to take advantage of the space on the open side.
From an offensive standpoint, the presence of speed rushers led many teams to place their most athletic offensive tackle on the left to neutralize the explosive rushers on the open side. In addition, they would place their "road graders" (big, physical offensive tackles adept at run blocking) on the right to fortify the preferred running side. Thus, defensive coordinators needed to position big, physical edge defenders at left defensive end to set the edge against the run with a possible double-team (right tackle and tight end) in place on every play.
"It makes sense to put a dominant power rusher on the left, especially against teams who believe the right tackle should be a better run blocker," an AFC West scout told me. "With more teams using spread offenses, both tackles need to be better in pass protection. If they don't have a legitimate guy on the right, a talented pass rusher can exploit him all day long."
When I looked at Mack's game as a collegian at Buffalo, I viewed him as a power guy with size, strength and athleticism to be a solid edge player on an elite defense. Although I didn't view him as a speed rusher in the mold of Von Miller, I thought he could be a difference maker or a cornerstone player on a team with other established playmakers.
Looking back at the assessment, I clearly underestimated Mack's ability to rack up sacks off the edges. He has a become a far more disruptive pass rusher than I imagined, but I believe the Raiders have enhanced his pass-rush skills by aligning him at LDE/LOLB in key situations. This is something that I originally noticed last season in the midst of a remarkable six-game run (11 sacks from Week 10 through 15) that catapulted him into superstardom. Studying his five-sack performance against Denver, in particular, it is not a coincidence that four of his takedowns occurred when he aligned on the defensive left. He is able to utilize his explosive strength and power to bully right tackles off the edge. Moreover, he is a superior athlete to the right tackles he faces, which allows him to mix in an occasional finesse move to complement his power-based game.
Fast-forward to this season. The Raiders treated Mack like a five-star pass rusher on the strength of his monster 2015 campaign. They moved him around at various spots on both sides of the line to take advantage of his skills as a power rusher. According to Next Gen Stats, Mack nearly split his time evenly on the right and left sides of the line during the first five games of the season. Here's a look at the numbers ...
When Mack aligns on the defensive left:
Week 1: 59.7 percent of plays, 5 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 2: 64.5 percent of plays, 0 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 3: 43.4 percent of plays, 0 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 4: 52.2 percent of plays, 2 tackles, 1 sack.
Week 5: 39.1 percent of plays, 1 tackle, 0 sacks.
When Mack aligns on the defensive right:
Week 1: 40.3 percent of plays, 2 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 2: 35.5 percent of plays, 0 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 3: 56.6 percent of plays, 2 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 4: 47.8 percent of plays, 4 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 5: 60.9 percent of plays, 2 tackles, 0 sacks.
As you can see, Mack didn't register much production during the opening potion of the season from either side. The decision to flip-flop him certainly didn't yield big results. Mack only registered 18 total tackles and one sack during the first five games and was a relative non-factor on a defense that underperformed.
Thus, I understand why the team elected to make a few subtle changes to help their standout find his groove. Starting in Week 6, Mack began to primarily align on the left side of the defense and the move clearly helped him find his niche as a pass rusher, as you can see here:
When Mack aligns on the left:
Week 6: 53.6 percent of plays, 4 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 7: 59.3 percent of plays, 1 tackle, 1 sack.
Week 8: 74.0 percent of plays, 5 tackles, 2 sacks.
Week 9: 97.8 percent of plays, 3 tackles, 2 sacks.
Week 11: 53.5 percent of plays, 3 tackles, 1 sack.
Week 12: 86.0 percent of plays, 6 tackles, 1 sack.
When Mack aligns on the right:
Week 6: 46.4 percent of plays, 3 tackles, 1 sack.
Week 7: 40.7 percent of plays, 2 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 8: 26.0 percent of plays, 2 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 9: 2.2 percent of plays, 0 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 11: 46.5 percent of plays, 0 tackles, 0 sacks.
Week 12: 14.0 percent of plays, 0 tackles, 0 sacks.
He has recorded at least one sack in six straight games, with seven of his eight sacks coming from the defensive left. Most impressively, Mack has totaled three forced fumbles from his LDE/LOLB position and they occurred during the weeks (Weeks 8, 9 and 12) when he logged the vast majority of his snaps on the left.
Remember, Jack Del Rio positioned Julius Peppers at LDE when he was the defensive coordinator with Carolina to help the rookie notch 12 sacks and claim the 2002 Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He also played a part in moving Von Miller to LDE/LOLB when the Broncos signed DeMarcus Ware as a prized free agent in 2014. While old-school coaches and evaluators rarely align premier pass rushers in that spot, savvy defensive wizards have been able to exploit favorable matchups against right tackles.
Based on Mack's production and disruption from the left, I believe the Raiders have not only found the All-Pro's sweet spot on defense, but they've helped quickly transform their defense into a much more effective unit. During Oakland's five-game winning streak, the Raiders have slashed their points- and yards-allowed figures.