Khalil Mack, the longtime Oakland Raider, is now the highest paid defensive player in the league. And he’s also a member of the Chicago Bears. If you had asked everyone six months ago how the Mack situation in Oakland would have played out, I bet you could have counted on one hand the number of people who said he was going to Chicago. Unfortunately, the Green Bay Packers are going to have to deal with this reality through 2024. In preparation for Sunday’s game, we take a look at how Mack’s transition from defensive end to outside linebacker might go.
Mack saw the field right away in his rookie season, starting the season technically as the SAM, or Strong-side outside linebacker, in a 4-3 under formation. On early downs, Mack would be in a stand-up position on the LOS outside the defensive tackle.
Standing up meant Mack was more of a read and react player, where he would engage with a blocker, read the play, shed the block, and pursue the ballcarrier. This read and react style of play tends to limit players’ pass rush pressures on these early downs, especially for younger players in the league, as the processing of the play type takes a split second, and that split second is vital when it comes to rushing the passer. Keep in mind that this does not apply when the linebacker is told to blitz; the read and react becomes someone else’s responsibility then.
On passing situations, Mack would lineup as the rush end on either side of the defense. There didn’t appear to be a concise gameplan for which side Mack would rush from but it didn’t really matter - even though Mack expressed frustration that he only managed to record 4.5 sacks on the year, he piled up the pressures as he ranked tied for 5th in the league.
Mack, under new head coach Jack Del Rio and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., still started games in a standing position and he was able to have success there.
However, Mack was increasingly playing with his hand in the dirt. Norton Jr., similar to his predecessor, also employed a 4-3 defense but officially moved Mack to a DE position. Here he is rushing off the left side against Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga.
By starting with a hand on the ground and playing the defensive end position, it relinquishes (to an extent, as it’s playcall dependent) the read and react nature of the outside linebacker position and instead the player can focus on beating the man in front of him. The results spoke for themselves; freed up to be more aggressive in pursuit of the ball, Mack finished the year with 15 sacks, second only to J.J. Watt. What stood out to me was how effortless Mack makes everything look - shedding blocks, speed moves, long arm moves, backside pursuit, inside counters - Mack had evolved from raw rookie to an elite edge player in one season.
In reviewing Mack’s film, it’s interesting to note that of his 18 combined individual and half sacks that year (12 individual sacks worth 1, 6 combined sacks worth .5 for a total of 15 sacks), only three out of those 18 combined sacks came when he was playing in a stand-up position and none of those three were high quality. The first came when he only had a running back blocking him who missed a cut block; the second came when he chased down a quarterback playing a spy position; and the third was a cleanup sack brought by other players’ pressure. Additionally, 15 of the 18 combined sacks came when he was rushing from the left side of the defense. While this may sound important, don’t let this fool you - this was only because Mack predominantly lined up in a down position on the left side of the defense, thereby having a much greater number of opportunities to accumulate those sacks. There’s absolutely no question in my mind that if he had lined up in, say, a standup position on the right side, Mack would have had a similar impact.
2016 and 2017
Mack, now fully entrenched as the premier pass rusher in the league, was receiving the respect from offenses that he deserved. It took him four games to get his first sack in 2016, due in large part to offenses recognizing what a force he is, and either double teaming him or getting the ball out quickly. Mack didn’t do anything new or line up in many different spots; on early downs or with heavier offensive looks Mack saw a lot of time as the left defensive end and would line up outside the offensive tackle or tight end if there was one. He would still play in a stand-up position sometimes:
On passing downs, Mack would widen out but primarily stick to the left side, going up against the offense’s right tackle.
This is what Mack did for a majority of the time. Similar to 2015, very few sacks came from a standup position or from anywhere but the left side. Mack was being played in a fixed position on passing downs, and he was reaping the benefits. Just look at his sacks:
The Bears now have a strong defensive core led by Khalil Mack. Here's all of his 10.5 sacks from last season. pic.twitter.com/Dcmm15EwQc— SportsTalkFeed (@SportsTalkFeed) September 3, 2018
But versatility is king in the modern NFL defense and the Raiders were beginning to recognize that as well. Mack has the athleticism and overall talent to lineup anywhere on the field and be productive, so Norton Jr. would on occasion have him line up inside with Bruce Irvin and have other linemen play on the outside:
or Norton would switch Mack over to the right side. As teams want to gain every edge possible, defensive fronts would change based upon the weekly and in-game matchups that were presented, and traditional defensive roles were blurred.
Now it’s time to face the music — Khalil Mack will be chasing Aaron Rodgers around for roughly 80 plays a year for the forseeable future. Mack is slotted as an outside linebacker for the Bears, an important position for the success of Vic Fangio’s defense as it is in most 3-4 defenses. They need to rush the passer, set the edge on runs, and occasionally drop back in coverage. Outside linebackers are asked to do a lot, and the Bears’ lack of pressure in recent years has been largely blamed on poor outside linebacker play.
While it has been a minute since Mack consistently played outside linebacker, he’s been successful at whatever position he’s been put in. I would expect him to play standing up in the LOLB spot in base packages, but quickly get kicked down on the line in sub packages so he can do what he got a record breaking contract to do. I don’t expect Mack to switch sides from left to right; its clear that he’s had success on the left side and Chicago’s other outside linebacker, Leonard Floyd, is a solid young talent. Packer fans might be ruing the fact they didn’t draft a replacement for Bryan Bulaga, because that’s the matchup we’re going to see a lot of.
As teams have figured out with every superstar pass rusher, you cannot block them one on one for any length of time and be successful unless the ball leaves the quarterback’s hands in two seconds or less. The Packers are at their best when the offense is able to strike quickly, but Aaron Rodgers has a propensity to hold on to the ball and squeeze every second out of a play. The Packers will have to adjust their game-planning a bit in order to account for Mack — I would predict a lot of chipping by tight ends and running backs.
In all honesty, though, I want to see Mack line up over David Bakhtiari 60 times a game and have those two go one on one. The best pass rusher in the league versus the best pass blocker in the league is must-see TV.
No matter where Mack lines up, hopefully, Green Bay will be able to limit the number of times this happens.