Defensive End Khalil Mack
It was just minutes after the Oakland Raiders had beaten the Carolina Panthers, and Jihad Ward sat quietly at his locker.
With his eye black smeared all over his cheeks, and his ankles still taped, the rookie defensive end sat silently, unable to verbalize what he had just seen transpire over the past four quarters.
Over the past three hours, Ward had watched a defensive clinic, and the teacher of the class was none other than his teammate Khalil Mack.
Mack ran wild against the Carolina Panthers en route to the Raiders 35-32 win, showcasing his versatility all afternoon long, securing his first career interception in the waning moments of the first half, and then cementing the Raiders ninth win of the season with a strip sack of Cam Newton.
In short, the Raiders dynamic edge rusher was dominant Sunday afternoon, so dominant in fact, that his rookie teammate had a hard time describing the type of feat he had just witnessed.
"Unbelievable," said Ward about Mack's day. "I just think he's a great player. He's just an excellent player. [I'm] speechless. That's all I can say on that."
"I'm just blessed to be in his presence," added linebacker – and fellow Slash Brother – Bruce Irvin. "The guy is one hell of a player. We feed off each other. On that last drive we told each other 'It's on us, it's on us to put the team on our back and end it.' That's exactly what we did. I'm just blessed to be in such a great situation playing with a future Hall of Famer."
Now, Irvin certainly was a tad hyperbolic – or premature at the very least – in crowning No. 52 a future Hall of Famer, but after Mack's dominant performance Sunday afternoon, the explosive defensive end has likely thrown his name in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.
Mack's stat line reads almost like a short paragraph– he finished the game with six tackles, one sack, three quarterback hits, one interception, one pass defensed, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery – but numbers aide, Mack showed up for the Raiders in the biggest moments, just when the team needed a play the most.
"He's already done things no one in the history of the league has done," quarterback Derek Carr said. "He's been an All-Pro at two positions…. I don't think we can put him into a category. I think that he's here, and he's progressed to here. He's in a class of his own. I'm not saying he's better than anybody, I think he is. I think he's the best football player I've ever played with and seen."
Mack's production Sunday – and over the past six weeks in general – has been outstanding, particularly considering his perceived slow start statistically.
After tallying just one sack over the first five weeks of the regular season, Mack has now taken the quarterback down at least once in the past six games, and has eight sacks total over that stretch.
And as Head Coach Jack Del Rio likes to say, it was just a matter of time before Mack started getting his numbers.
"Earlier in the year there was discussion about what about his numbers and I said, you know what I said," explained Del Rio. "He's going to get his numbers. He's a good football player and he brings great energy every day. He's a wonderful teammate. He's a talented guy that works his tail off. Those guys tend to get their numbers."
Mack is now tied for sixth in the NFL with nine sacks, so give Del Rio credit, those numbers have certainly come, but even though Mack is now doing what his head coach always expected him to, that doesn't mean it's any less impressive to his teammates.
"He's an animal, man," linebacker Cory James said. "I've never seen anything like it… I've never seen anything like it. He's the best, the best in the NFL."
Sunday afternoon, as he enforced his will, shedding double, and sometimes even triple teams, Mack certainly looked like that breakdown from James wasn't hyperbolic in the least.