Pass rusher Khalil Mack has heard the chatter this offseason. He knows that the Oakland Raiders are no longer is flying under the radar with limited expectations and that many people believe that there is something special brewing with this team, which likely will fall under the "chic sportswriter sleeper" category entering the 2016 season after years of being an also-ran.
Even though Mack was spectacular in 2015, being the first player in league history to be named All Pro at two different positions (defensive end and linebacker), he also knows that he and his team need a lot of work before it can say it has arrived. After all, despite a fruitful offseason that saw the Raiders land as many as five new starters, most of whom are viewed as upgrades, this still is a team that lost six of its final nine games and one that lost veteran leaders Charles Woodson and Justin Tuck.
Mack took a few minutes to chat with Shutdown Corner on Friday, taking a break from shooting an ad campaign for New Era, to talk about his role, his improving team and just how the expectations have changed heading into his third season.
SDC: What's different for you personally heading into Year 3?
Mack: I am taking a serious leadership role this season. I am trying to embrace the process and take some pressure off the coaches. It's something I think I need to do to take my game to another level.
SDC: Is a lot of that because you have lost two respected veterans on defense in Tuck and Woodson? Does taking that kind of role come naturally to you?
Mack: It might not come naturally, but I am doing my best to be that guy, to be like [Tuck and Woodson]. I watched them go to work. I saw how they did things, the little things, the everyday things. That’s how I need to be. I might have my own style, my own way of doing things, but I can go about my business the same way those guys did and still accomplish what I want to accomplish and help this team out.
SDC: You've added a lot of new faces on defense. Help through free agency, help through the draft. There's a lot of talent there, but we've seen other teams do this in the past and have trouble figuring out roles. Is that a concern at all for you?
Mack: We’re bringing everyone in soon [for OTAs, starting May 26] and trying to put it all together. It’s a puzzle right now, and we’re seeing how the pieces all fit together. Some guys will have new roles. Some might have to wait. Some, we’ll see. But everyone has to be ready to go to work to make the whole unit better.
There will be communication we’ll have to build, and we’re trying to bond off the field as well. That will make it that much better, the closer we get. I really think that part is important. Getting to know each other, trusting each other and trusting the coaches will make us all work together.
SDC: We watched the Denver Broncos play some exceptional defense last season, but you guys played some great defense (five sacks, two forced fumbles, a safety) against them late in the season. Does that kind of make you think, Hey, we can be that good also?
Mack: Most definitely. If you look at that Broncos defense, they’re one of the best defenses in NFL history last year. They did a lot to make the quarterback uncomfortable. We can do those types of things and still put our own little twist on it. We can be that good.
You want it to happen right away, but we have to know that coming together takes time. We have the talent now, and we can disrupt the way they do and be that dominant if we max out and put it all together.
SDC: Is it as simple as saying that you and Derek Carr are now the faces of this Raiders franchise? Are you guys embracing that?
Mack: In a way, you can say that. But I am a team guy. It’s not just about me or about Derek, it’s about all of us. There doesn’t need to be a face. We just need to be strong together. Our coaches, including Coach [Jack] Del Rio, are our faces now until we prove ourselves. I don't want to [speak for Carr], but I bet he feels the same way.
SDC: Did you approach change at all this offseason? Some players will figure out what works best for them after they've been in the league a couple of years.
Mack: Yeah, a little bit. The biggest thing for me was I started back up a little earlier. I had a few little things, a few minor injuries, I wanted to get fixed up. Nothing big, and I did that. I also have been working on my pass-rush technique, just taking a slightly different approach this offseason.
SDC: How are you approaching it differently?
Mack: Well, I can't tell you everything [laughs]. But I am working on my body, my conditioning a little. Just reshaping a little. Not big, but a little change can sometimes make a big difference. Then just little things with my technique: hands, leverage, get off. Clean those up a little, tighten things up. You can always get a little better.
SDC: Coming into the league, what's the thing about rushing the passer that you don't realize before you play in the NFL? What's the toughest thing that gets in your way.
Mack: You don’t realize how smart NFL quarterbacks are. We played guys like Peyton [Manning] twice a year, Philip Rivers twice a year, and they ... they just make you a little angry. [laughs] They know where to put the ball. They can do it under three seconds. They know where the pressure is coming from. They know when you're coming [on a blitz] and when you're playing coverage. That's the biggest thing.
So it comes down to one-on-one matchups and beating your man, and sometimes that's not even enough. You can do your job perfectly, and they ball is already gone. You have to tell yourself sometimes it's not just all about rushing the passer. There's coverage. There's different things that happen during a game on defense. If you don't [remind yourself of that] you can get frustrated. I've had to learn that over time, but I am starting to realize it.
SDC: So just to bring this full circle now, you're now the guy in the spotlight. You've had two big seasons in two years. You're taking on this leadership role. You're shooting ad campaigns for New Era. People recognize you more now than coming out of University of Buffalo. Can you still thrive will the added attention and pressure?
Mack: That's the hope. That's what you take on and put on yourself. Like I said, some of this might not be natural for me, but some of it I am enjoying. I can have fun on a shoot like this. I can have fun speaking up in practice. I can still be comfortable doing things I haven't necessarily done before. It's a new experience for me, and I am getting used to it, but I am enjoying it to.
It's nice to have that [added pressure]. People are expecting bigger things from us. We want that. We're not going to run from that, but at the same time we have to believe we are capable of the things they're saying we can do. Sometimes you have to put yourself out there a little to take that next step, get out of that comfort [zone[.
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