No defensive player in the NFL was as dominant as Khalil Mack was in the first quarter of the 2019 NFL season. His 4.5 sacks and four forced fumbles tell the story, but the tape was even more impressive.
And then Akiem Hicks got hurt in the first quarter in London. Since then? Mack has one sack and zero forced fumbles in five games.
So what happened?
The answer to that question goes back to London, not only because Hicks got hurt in the game, but also because the Raiders created the blueprint for erasing the superstar they inexplicably traded away. Raiders defensive coordinator Paul Guenther had a plan for Mack and he was sticking to it, even before Hicks got hurt.
The plan was simple in its ideology (keep the football as far away from Khalil Mack as possible) and complex in his execution (using a large variety of blocking personnel and play calls).
The result? The first of five straight games in which it looked like Mack didn’t have an impact, even though he did.
“The one thing we all need to be perfectly clear of is this is a special player. People gameplan him. They do things that they don’t do versus other players that they do versus him,” Bears outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said Monday at Halas Hall. “Is he still impacting games? Not the way that he would like — impacting plays, yes, down in and down out, but I do believe that you gotta give those teams a lot of credit. They’re going to tend to him and they have done a really nice job of it.”
Sunday’s 20-13 win over the Lions is a great example of how teams are scheming Mack. I charted all 71 of Mack’s snaps and the blocking combinations looked like this:
Single-blocked: 35 snaps
Doubled-teamed: 19 snaps
Triple-teamed: 5 snaps
Unblocked: 4 snaps
Dropped into coverage: 6 snaps
Other: 2 snaps (both QB spikes)
“He got blocked by every position group on that offense,” Monachino said. “Wide receivers blocked him. Tight ends blocked him. Running backs blocked him. Guards, centers and tackles blocked him.”
Essentially, Mack was singled for only half the game. And of those 35 snaps he was singled, 14 of those were runs. That leaves 21 snaps in which Mack had 1-on-1 situations in the passing game. But he certainly didn’t have 21 opportunities to get to the quarterback, because of those 21 passes, 12 were quick throws, play-action, boots, or sprint-outs to the opposite side of Mack, essentially removing him from the play.
In other words, even though Mack was on the field for 71 snaps against the Lions, he really only had nine legitimate opportunities to get to the quarterback in 1-on-1 pass rush situations.
“He got singled nine times and he won six rushes, that’s a really high percentage,” Monachino said. “That’s a high win percentage in a one-on-one situations.”
The math checks out, although this is where things can get subjective in what different coaches and evaluators consider to be hurries, pressures, or even “disruptions,” as Phil Emery used to say. I personally marked Mack down for three pressures and one holding penalty drawn on those nine snaps, but it’s also accurate for Monachino to say he won six of those rushes because there were two other times when Mack beat his man, but Lions quarterback Jeff Driskel was still able to get rid of the ball.
The point is, Mack still looks like the dominant pass rusher he is when he gets legitimate opportunities to get to the quarterback, but teams are doing an outstanding job of limiting those opportunities.
“They get to him by turning the protection to him, so even if he does counter at the top of the pocket and it’s a win, there’s a guard waiting for him,” Monachino said. “The other thing they do is they chip him. Chip him with a back, chip him with a tight end, chip him with a wideout like we saw (Sunday). The other thing they do is sprint away from him, which is what they did to us (Sunday), but when they do sprint at him, they cut him.”
So what can the Bears do to take advantage of how teams are playing Mack? Here are three options, all of which are already happening to some degree:
1. Other Players Need To Step Up
If teams are running and throwing the ball away from Mack, that means they are running and throwing the ball towards other players. If Mack is getting double-teamed, that means other players are getting singled. If teams are going to the quick game, then corners can play tighter coverage.
Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Bears’ defense is still playing well. They rank ninth in total defense (327.3), third in yards/play (4.92) and fourth in scoring defense (17.4). They’re getting by without Akiem Hicks and without Mack putting up the crazy numbers he’s capable of producing. But it’s also fair to say the Bears have room for improvement and need to find ways to force more takeaways, which always starts with the pass rush. Leonard Floyd is the most obvious example of a player who should be taking advantage of the attention Mack is getting.
One player who is taking advantage is defensive tackle Nick Williams, as he now leads the team with six sacks. But as a unit, the linemen aren’t regularly creating the same push in the pocket that was there when Hicks was on the field.
“We’re getting edge rushes out of Roy (Robertson-Harris) and out of Bilal (Nichols) and out of Nick (Williams) — obviously Nick has been really been productive — but without great push in the middle of the pocket, the quarterback is able to climb the pocket, and when he can climb the pocket, our edge stuff isn’t as good,” Monachino said. “So then our counters have to get better. And when our counters get better and they’re still turning the protection to you, and there’s a guard standing there waiting on you, it’s hard to get home.”
Sometimes, you can only scheme as far as your talent can go, and there’s certainly a limit to what the Bears — and Mack — can do without Hicks.
2. Take Advantage Of Tendencies
In the meantime, the Bears’ scouting of tendencies is more crucial than ever. If Mack is only getting nine legitimate opportunities to get to the quarterback in a game and he doesn’t know when those opportunities are actually going to come, it’s a problem. Unfortunately, there’s not much advance scouting can do to help identify those opportunities because the Bears’ opponents aren’t playing Khalil Mack every week.
That’s a big reason why I decided to chart Mack’s entire game against the Lions, because the Bears play them again in Detroit on Thanksgiving. But to the Lions’ credit, they weren’t very predictable in how they were blocking Mack throughout the game.
For example, the first five snaps looked like this:
- Singled with a cut block, throw to the opposite side
- Singled, run to the opposite side
- Singled, run to the opposite side
But an early theme did develop on the opening drive, as the Lions didn’t try a true quarterback drop without doubling Mack. If the Bears find ways to better identify how Mack is being blocked before the snap, the rest of the defense will have a better idea of where the ball is going.
The Lions also doubled Mack in obvious passing downs. Of 14 third downs with four or more yards to gain, Mack was doubled nine times and tripled one other time. He was tripled on 4th-and-11 and doubled on 4th-and-7.
And there was one good example of defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano taking advantage of Mack getting double-teamed by two tight ends, as he blitzed linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski into the double-team, putting the inside tight end in a bind. Both Kwiatkoski and Mack created pressure and Driskel had to throw the ball away.
It will be very interesting to see how Pagano attacks the Lions on Thanksgiving after seeing how they schemed Mack at Soldier Field.
3. Seize Every Opportunity
Until Hicks returns, Mack’s opportunities are going to be limited, so he needs to take advantage of every opportunity he gets. I mentioned above that Mack was left unblocked on the first play of game. It happened to be a run in Mack’s direction and he missed the tackle. Ty Johnson picked up 10 yards.
There was another missed opportunity on one of the nine legitimate pass rushes Mack had — and one of the six “wins” he had against his blocker — as he beat backup tackle Tyrell Crosby and could have sacked Driskel, but the quarterback side stepped him and got away. That turned out to be Mack’s best opportunity at a sack in the game.
Of course, there are other things Mack is doing that get very little attention. He’s making run stops. He had one play where he beat a double-team and clearly got held but referee Carl Cheffers didn’t throw his flag. There was a play-action boot in which Mack managed to spin around and still impact the throw in a way very few pass rushers could. On the pass Driskel completed to himself, it was Mack who forced him to step up in the pocket, allowing Brent Urban to get his hands up and block the ball.
“He was effective,” Monachino said. “He would prefer to be productive.”
And that’s the perfect way to describe Mack right now. Effective, but not productive.